Photographer Thomas Lee is used to special demands at weddings, but his assignment on Saturday was unlike any he’d ever been given. It began with a strict condition—unauthorized photography was prohibited. And since Lee was the official photographer, he was the only person allowed to take shots of anyone’s face.
The event justified the unusual demands: In councis chambers at City Hall, 15 couples, all North Korean refugees, were married in a mass ceremony in front of 200 people.
Toronto’s North Korean community, estimated at around 800 people, is typically secretive and low-key. The face-photography prohibition was imposed because most of the brides and grooms worried that if the North Korean government discovered they’d escaped the totalitarian regime, family and friends would face severe consequences back home.
Despite the risk, the mostly anonymous couples felt compelled to share their vows after the Free North Korean Association of Canada and the Alpha Korean United Church organized the ceremony. Councillor Raymond Cho played host.
Many newlyweds said their decision to participate was not just as a commitment to each other, but also to Canada. “This is paradise,” said 27-year-old Kim Jae Yi through an interpreter, and one of the few to share his name. “I feel very good today.”
As media and supporters worried whether the angle of their photos captured too much of anyone’s face, it was up to South Korean–born Lee to visually capture the day’s emotions. “There were tears from the brides…special smiles from the grooms,” Lee said of his photos. “It was a special ceremony.” As the orchestral music swelled and the couples walked out of the chamber hand-in-hand, all the photography seemed like an afterthought; the moment was memorable on its own.