Eilish Palmer arrived at the Pulaski County Courthouse in Little Rock, Ark., early on Monday morning — just as dozens of same-sex couples were lining up to receive marriage licenses and legally marry in the state. With her, she brought two cameras — one with a zoom lens and another for wide shots — her bulky black camera bag, and a sign that read, "Free Wedding Photos."
"It was just automatic that that is what I was going to go do," she said.
Palmer, a professional photographer from Conway, Ark., drove the 30 or so miles down to the courthouse after hearing that an Arkansas judge struck down the state's ban on marriages between same-sex couples May 9, and that the county clerk there likely would issue marriage licenses when it opened for business Monday. Somebody, she said, needed to be there to take their wedding photos — she did it for free.
"I know the frustration and sadness that these couples endure, so when the judgment came down on Friday and there was no stay, my first thought was that in this situation, these people don't have the luxury of getting their marriage licenses and then planning a wedding," Palmer said. "I decided that since those couples did not have the luxury of time to plan that, the one thing I could do to support them is to photograph as many weddings as I could."
Palmer runs a photography business, Lady With A Camera, is a seasoned wedding and portrait photographer, and has done freelance work for a local newspaper. Taking pictures of people funds what she truly loves to do: travel and photograph wildlife like wolves in Yellowstone National Park. But on Tuesday as she edited the hundreds of photos she took under the courthouse rotunda, Palmer said she especially loved shooting the weddings of those same-sex couples.
"Once they had me, they were my clients for that short time and I treated them like a paid client," she said. "I feel strongly about marriage equality. I always have."
Through the rush, the excitement, celebration, and emotion in the room that morning, Palmer said she was able to keep on her "game face" — at least for most of the time she was photographing.
"One of the couples with two daughters — even the clergyman got choked up as they held hands with their daughters and hugged each of them when it was all done," Palmer said. "It was so emotional. For me, that was the face of marriage equality. That family is now legally protected in our state and with all the legal protections everyone else has."
Those images were the first she edited. "These girls were old enough to know that their moms were getting married and were so happy and they hugged each girl and I just lost it," she said.
By the end of the business day Monday, Pulaski County had issued 169 marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the county clerk's office told BuzzFeed. Palmer photographed dozens of those couples — steadily shooting ceremony after ceremony from about 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. — to the point where she lost count of how many. Sixty-four gigabytes of photos in total.
"It's moving to look at it now, one of those iconic, telling images capturing the excitement and the love of the day," she said. "These people live in Arkansas. This isn't supposed to happen here. For that judge to do that — it was an amazing experience."
But Palmer's act of charity did not go without criticism from opponents of marriage equality. Some commenters on a picture of her posted to a local news channel's Facebook timeline condemned Palmer and the same-sex couples on religious grounds and some even asked if she was offering free photos for opposite-sex couples because if not, "that would be discrimination."
"No straight couples asked," Palmer said. "I would have done theirs as well. I have given away many packages and free services for straight couples — the straight team is still in the lead."
She was, however, disheartened because one same-sex couple who married declined to be photographed out of fear of being disciplined at work.
"Only one couple said 'no' and it's because they were educators and weren't even comfortable enough with someone — even someone not with the news doing it," Palmer said. "That really upset me that, even now, they had to worry."
Palmer said she hopes the Arkansas Supreme Court will allow same-sex couples to continue marrying in the state. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit that challenges the state's ban responded to the state's request to stay the ruling, which would halt marriage equality pending an appeal to the higher court. A spokesperson for the court told BuzzFeed such a ruling is "likely this week." Meanwhile, same-sex couples continued to marry in Pulaski and Washington counties on Tuesday.
If she were to do it again, Palmer said she would put out a call for additional photographers to do the same.
"One thing, too, is that everyone talks about how it's going to ruin the sanctity of marriage and ruin it all for the rest of us," she said. "And I just want to say that no clients I've booked this spring, summer, or fall have called to cancel their weddings."