Hundreds of people get married at New York City Hall every day. Some couples forget flowers or rings, but what about the one real necessity — a witness?
That's where Goran Veljic and Braulio Cuenca come in. Between them, the two wedding photographers have served as witnesses for thousands of couples, a duty that both markets their services and allows them to share in the happiest day of people's lives.
"Any time you're feeling stressed, or sad, you should come to City Hall to see the weddings," said Veljic, a 43-year-old from what is now Serbia. "I love being in an environment built on love and happiness."
Between Cuenca's 20 years as a last-minute wedding photographer and Veljic's four, they've seen almost every kind of courthouse ceremony imaginable.
There was the opera singer who met her fiancé straight off the plane from Germany and flew back within a few hours; the brothers who had a double wedding; a couple who couldn't bear to get married unless they could bring their dog to the ceremony; and, of course, all those New Yorkers who are too busy for anything except a lunch-break wedding, a few photos and a kiss goodbye before taking separate cabs back to the office.
"It's about the special moments," said Cuenca, 47, who emigrated from Ecuador. "It's just a minute in the couples' lives that means something forever. To see that is special."
Cuenca and Veljic are the only two regular wedding photographers who specialize in City Hall. Even though they are business rivals, they get along well. They stake out separate, strategic spots (Cuenca on the sidewalk, Veljic near the steps) to catch couples who may need a witness, and maybe a photographer.
"We can always point people who need witnesses in the photographers' direction, and they're happy to help," said Samantha Goldsberry, who works in the gift and flower shop. "They're some of the main characters here. They're part of the fabric."
Neither man charges to witness a marriage — but if couples want to buy photos, Cuenca charges $175 for a 35-print album and portrait, and Veljic offers print packages and DVDs for $299.
Lately, business has been good. City Hall, which hosts about 20,000 ceremonies a year, has been especially busy since a 2009 move for the marriage bureau that greatly expanded and renovated the space for weddings, and the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that repealed part of the federal law against gay marriage.
Jeffrey Thompson and Michal Prosk, of Palm Beach, Fla., wed in New York because same-sex marriage isn't legal in Florida. Being from out of town, they didn't have a witness on hand.
"We were looking for someone to be our witness, and Goran kindly volunteered to do it," Thompson said. "He's done this so many times now; I guess it's kind of like we have a celebrity who's signed our certificate."
Cuenca and Veljic say people sometimes remember them and strike up conversations in the street or subway to reminisce.
"Every day, every ceremony, is the same but different," Veljic said. "New Yorkers are full of surprises. You never know what you will get."