For the man and woman leaving Santa Rosa Catholic Church in San Fernando, it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. They had just gotten married, and they were sharing their joy with family and friends on the steps outside.
The scene just begged for a picture. And a group of strangers outside the church were just begging to take it.
Like paparazzi outside a star-studded Hollywood premiere, the swarm jockeyed for position as the unsuspecting celebrants carried on. Several photographers clutched developing photos of the festivities between their teeth as they continued to snap away.
Soon, the unhired shutterbugs made it clear they were not collecting snapshots for their personal scrapbooks. The wedding party would be able to cherish this memory forever--at $5 a shot.
Like an army, free-lance photographers, armed with Polaroid cameras and dozens of small cardboard frames, converge each weekend on various Southern California churches with heavily Latino congregations where weddings, baptisms and birthdays are being celebrated.
It is a custom carried over from Mexico, and the focus is on anyone who will pose and pay. The photographers compete against each other in front of their subjects, thrusting photos at them, flattering them and generally doing anything they can to sell the snapshots.
"How much you sell depends on your ability to be a salesman," Gonzalo Aldama said. One of Aldama's most effective techniques is to tell preening male subjects that they resemble actor Charles Bronson.
The photographers will usually shoot the first pictures in hopes that a potential customer will be encouraged into posing for another. The snapshots are available for sale within minutes after they are taken. After being ripped from the camera, the photos are popped into specially made frames, ready for presentation.
If he hustles, a photographer can make as much as $100 a day, Aldama said. Most, however, make just "enough for certain expenses--like gasoline, beers and horses," he said.
And sometimes things don't click at all. "I can be there all day and sometimes I don't make a cent," Aldama said.
The amateur photographers have formed an informal, tightknit society with unwritten rules and an understanding about the perils of unsolicited photography. Some become regulars at certain churches. Newcomers are frowned upon.
Although they are competitors, Aldama and Tany Bracamantes meet each weekend at Santa Rosa and St. Ferdinand's Catholic Church in San Fernando. The rest of their week could not be more dissimilar: Aldama, of Montebello, studies photography at East Los Angeles College, and Bracamantes is a construction worker in Tijuana who commutes to the churches on weekends.
The photographers take their work seriously even though it is only a weekend pursuit.
"It's harder than being a professional photographer," Aldama said. "I have to take a good shot because if I don't, I won't sell it. Professional photographers can touch things up. We can't."
Buyers, like the photographers, are mostly of Mexican descent, Bracamantes said.
Some church officials said they regard photo vendors as a nuisance. But Terry Vinson, a secretary at Santa Rosa, said most parishes recognize that they are only trying to earn a living.
"Some people just put up with it," Vinson said.
At a recent wedding, Aldama persuaded an elderly woman, Eulogia Tapia, to allow him to take a picture of her and her husband.
"Please, abuelita (grandmother), let me take it," Aldama said.
When she saw the finished product, Tapia was pleased.
"It's very nice and clear," she told Aldama, handing him $5.