©Petronella Lugemwa

Wondrous Variety

For years, Petronella Lugemwa shied away from her heritage. Born in Uganda, Lugemwa moved to Birmingham, Alabama, when she was 10 years old. Growing up in an area where her culture wasn’t well represented and was often misunderstood, she attempted to assimilate by downplaying her identity. “I found that many people weren’t comfortable with people of different cultures, particularly my culture, so I learned to hide it,” she says.

Later, when she became a professional wedding photographer in the New York area, Lugemwa attended a workshop on personal branding, where she learned that artists’ gifts often lie in the things they’re trying to hide about themselves. She started researching the idea of embracing her heritage to better connect with clientele. She talked with people of varied cultural backgrounds and was surprised to find that many of them also felt ignored and were starving for recognition of their cultures. “I thought I was alone in the way I’d approached my culture, but I wasn’t,” she says. “People of all cultures were going through similar experiences as they tried to navigate the world, but their cultures were showing up in different ways in their lives. And as a wedding photographer, it was really fascinating, because all these different parts of people’s lives come together on the wedding day in one celebration, and it’s so important to capture that for them.”

©Petronella Lugemwa

In short order, Lugemwa went from hiding the most notable elements of her East Africa heritage to embracing them. Then, taking it a step further, she carved out a niche for her wedding photography business by specializing in multicultural weddings. Since making that transition, she’s established herself as one of metropolitan New York’s most sought-after wedding photographers for nuptials that incorporate diverse cultural and religious elements.  

Lugemwa stresses that any wedding photographer can build a thriving business around culturally diverse weddings. They need to exhibit sensitivity, a respectful curiosity, and a willingness to learn traditions that may be different from their own.

Embrace the beauty of multiculturalism. The first step in building a more culturally diverse wedding photography business is believing in the beauty of others’ cultural heritage. “We all believe our own cultural heritage is beautiful, but do we extend that belief to others’ cultures?” asks Lugemwa. “Trust me when I say that if you’re a person who is constantly being cognizant of your culture, when someone tells you they are interested, they are respectful, and they stand for you, that is powerful.”

©Petronella Lugemwa

Be intentional. Are you just looking to check a box that says you work with multicultural clients, or are you truly making an intentional decision to seek out a diverse clientele and make it a substantial part of your business? Clients can tell the difference.

Demonstrate interest. Ask questions and listen intently to the responses. If you appear dismissive or uninterested in a client’s background, as if you’re just going through the motions, you’ll undermine trust and endanger any chance of a personal connection. However, if you sincerely want to understand, clients will appreciate it.

©Petronella Lugemwa

Do your homework. If you’re unfamiliar with the customs of your clients, do your research. Learn not just the cultural mores but also the specifics of the wedding ceremony and celebration. Understand when significant moments occur, and how you should position yourself to capture them without disrupting the event. Show that you’re trying to learn and be respectful. You may still stumble into a faux pas or two, but your clients will usually give you leeway if they see you’re trying.

Lead with heart. “It all starts with heart,” says Lugemwa. “Show your clients that you care and you want to be there for them on their wedding day.” You may not know everything about their culture, but you’re doing your best to honor their customs. 

Understand the range. There is an enormous range of adherence to cultural traditions. Some people are more traditional, and some people just want a hint of their heritage woven into a more modern ceremony. Ask questions to get a sense of how your clients identify and what their intentions are. Then adjust your approach accordingly. Never make assumptions based on stereotypes or a few minutes of cursory research.

©Petronella Lugemwa

Get out of your comfort zone. If there’s a particular culture that’s more prevalent in your area, or among your potential audience, challenge yourself to dive deeper into that culture’s traditions, language, food, and ceremonies. Attend community events, go to festivals, eat at restaurants, and immerse yourself as much as possible to help establish some authenticity.

Show that you get it. Weddings are full of new contacts and potential clients. If you demonstrate that you understand what’s going on and are covering the different cultural elements respectfully, it could lead to a long list of new referrals. “It really matters how you show up and conduct yourself,” says Lugemwa.

Cultivate your network. Build a solid network of multicultural vendors who understand the different types of weddings you’re photographing. This is not only a great marketing method but also important for client service. When you have vendors who understand your clients’ traditions, it shows you’re connected to that community and you know how to provide service that adheres to their customs.

©Petronella Lugemwa

Recognize that diversity is everywhere. “The world is becoming increasingly multicultural,” says Lugemwa. “So even if you are in a space where maybe you don’t see it as much, it’s coming.”

Leverage your story. Embrace your own cultural identity. Tell your story and distinguish yourself through your unique history. “Who you are, your story, is really key in helping to brand and differentiate yourself,” says Lugemwa. “That’s what people connect to. So don’t downplay it; celebrate it!” 

Jeff Kent is editor-at-large.