The Retainer

June is supposed to be a happy time for a wedding photographer - it's the height of wedding season and I've had all the cake. However, this June had an unfortunate turn in its waning weeks.

Let me back up.

In the fall of 2013 we'd met with a lovely couple and did some engagement photos for them. They were positively adorable together and it seemed like they were tailor-made to fit into each other's lives; they were the kind of couple that will either make you want to wretch or smile depending on your temperament. After they received their engagement photos, they booked their wedding package.

We like to check in with our clients during the wait until their weddings because things are always changing and it's a good idea to stay on the radar. Everything seemed all right as we swapped Pinterest boards and spreadsheets for timelines and shot lists.

It came apart in the middle of June, just a few weeks before the start of the wedding. From the outside it looked as if one day there was a couple and then the next day there was nothing left.

That's usually the way of things. I found out about my first cancellation on the day of the wedding, after I'd schlepped all the way over to Holyoke only to be told by the bride's sister that everything had been called off. This time it was a tearful phone call three weeks ahead of the big day. No real details, just that the wedding was being cancelled.

Then I got an e-mail.

It was terse, but reasonably polite under the circumstances. The groom was asking for a refund and that was going to make things a little awkward.

I am not really good at telling people no. Usually I want everyone to be happy and try to find a way for everyone to come away with what they want (or something close to it) but there were two problems:

The biggest, was that all the money I'd been paid had come from the bride, so I couldn't really issue any refunds to him (especially without talking to her first). Second, there was no way I could rebook their wedding day with the clock ticking down.

When couples book, I need two things from them to hold the day: the contract and the retainer. The former so that everyone is playing by the same rules and the latter because I am running a business (even if that business is a giant scam to get paid to eat cake). The retainer is important because as a boutique service (rather than a wedding mill or big studio), we only book one wedding a day (and realistically most people are trying to get married on the same handful of Saturdays in June) and once it's booked we start turning away business.

There's a little flexibility there depending on circumstances. For example, if we can fill in a cancellation with a new wedding then we can offer a full or partial refund; alternately, if the wedding is postponed then we can apply the retainer (or part of it) towards another date if available. I am, after all, not a heartless monster.

All of that is harder with two weeks to go before the wedding. We never managed to book the date and as a gesture of good will we sent the bride back her last payment against the tide of increasingly irate phone messages from the groom.