With Paris fixed in our hearts as the city of love, it is hard to imagine a more perfect venue for romance. It is the reason couples from around the world flock to this beautiful location year on year, whether for their honeymoon, a romantic break - or to pop the question.
While that down-on-one-knee moment is memorable for the couple, not many are able to capture the instant they said “Yes” in a tangible form.
This is where Sandie Carol Dougnac comes in.
Hiding in a pre-arranged location, she snaps the moment the couple make their promise to each other, recording the love and happiness on the faces of the new fiancées.
Although photography is an art, capturing the proposal without being detected takes an additional set of skills: subterfuge, organisation and the ability to take the perfect picture without being seen.
Sandie said: “I’m always really nervous. If I’m seen, the unsuspecting half of the couple will know that something is going on — I could completely ruin someone’s perfect night!”
To date, Sandie and her Nikon D800 have managed to stay off the radar of brides and grooms to be but she admitted: “It has come close once or twice. Often clients want to propose under the Eiffel Tower, which is very open. My partner Yohann has a big jacket, so he hides me, with just the zoom coming out!
“It’s stressful – my heart is usually racing!
“The closest I’ve come to being discovered is when a woman turned and walked towards me, as she wanted to look at something. I ran into a souvenir shop just in time!”
Working with a company, ApoteoSurprise, she has also taken part in some different set-ups since first being approached in 2013. “There is one where the couple tour Paris in a Cinderella carriage. Or sometimes they choose a very private, romantic restaurant — which is a lot harder for me.
“Once I was crouched behind a sofa, hoping not to be seen!”
Sandie has also been known to follow couples on the back of Yohann’s motorbike, or on foot.
Having taken part in more than 20 proposals and hundreds of weddings, she has also had to give advice to a nervous would-be spouse.
She said: “Sometimes they are scared; they just want to get the proposal out of the way. But I remind them they will treasure this memory all their lives. It’s important to get it right.”
Happily, marriage is still in fashion with statistics from the national agency Insee showing three out of four couples are married. Of the others, just 4% have a pacs and 21% have no formal relationship.
However, being married is no guarantee of staying together as the same statistics show a leap of 60% in the number of separations in the past 20 years.
Getting married is more than just the woman’s big decision on whether to say Yes to the proposal – she also has to decide on what name to use after the wedding.
She can keep her own name, but taking her husband’s name means a trip to the préfecture.
Official documents will then carry her maiden name plus the words “épouse X” and the husband’s name. There is no law obliging her to change – it is just a tradition dating to the 19th century when women were seen as a man’s property.
If the couple have children they must then decide on their names, whether the father’s, the mother’s or the two together.
Whatever is chosen is definitive and cannot be changed even after a divorce. If the couple cannot agree then the father’s name is automatically chosen.
But divorce is far from the minds of the couples Sandie meets and, with Paris attracting lovers from around the world, she has photographed couples from Norway, the Philippines and the US.
“One of the most romantic proposals was when a female couple – Carmela and Kimberley – came to Paris with their mothers. At the foot of the Eiffel Tower, Carmela surprised Kimberley with a proposal.
“Carmela’s best friend Leticia was there too, and proposed to her girlfriend, Alvina.” Sandie impressed Carmela, 30, who said: “She was great – like 007. No-one knew I was about to propose, not even my mum.”
Born in France, Sandie moved to Norway aged eight, and returned at 29, in 2000, to study French literature in Paris.
Photographing weddings started with a friend. “A friend came to Paris from Norway to get married and asked if I could take her photos. I gave my card to the Norwegian Embassy and things just took off.”
Sandie is constantly striving to add more strings to her bow: “I’ve started to do street art and also do ‘pastel photography’ where you shoot in black and white, but draw on the canvas with pastels. People say it reminds them of pictures from the 1950s.”
Despite living on the outskirts of Paris for 15 years, Sandie still finds the city magical. “Taking photographs here is like recording a love letter between a couple. I let them live out their love and I step back, using my zoom lens, so end up with natural photos.”
Partner Yohann, 41, has also helped out, using his skills as a film director. “One couple, Arpan and Sneha, asked him to film their proposal in October 2015. Yohann put it to music, with some of my photos from the evening, and it was perfect.”
While romantic engagements are central to their lives, her partner of 15 years has yet to pop the question.
Sandie said: “We’re definitely together forever, we just haven’t made it official. Who knows, maybe he’ll get inspired!”
But, then again, this is a leap year, when a woman can propose...
Seven must-dos before 'I do'
IF THERE is one thing guaranteed to suck the romance out of life, it is paperwork – and France is notorious for its love of bureaucracy.
However, there is no reason why marrying in France should be a headache if you do what is asked of you in good time.
After you have set your date and chosen a location, contact the mairie in the town where you plan to wed.
Either you or your partner (and in some cases, your parents) must be resident in the commune for at least 40 days prior to the ceremony.
Any documents in English may need to be translated by a registered translator, but the mairie can help you find a local approved one.
In France, a marriage must take place at the mairie and must be conducted by the mayor or a representative.
A religious ceremony will not be recognised as a valid marriage unless this civil ceremony has taken place first. In many case, you would need to provide a marriage certificate before a religious ceremony will be considered.
The British Embassy in Paris says that the following documents are required if you want to marry in France:
- Your Passport
- Your full birth certificate (including parents’ details) — This usually must be issued in the six months prior to your wedding. If you are asked for a recent copy, contact the General Registry Office.
- Proof of residence — a utility bill, or pay slip, for example.
- Decree absolute — or the equivalent if you did not get divorced in the UK.
- If you are widowed, you will need to provide your previous spouse’s death certificate.
- A certificate of custom — This can be provided by the British Consulate.
- A certificate of celibacy — You can download the British Consulate’s official note from its website and take it to the town hall.
Go to the mairie for marriage certificate copies – and they can issue a multilingual certificate (certificat plurilingue) to save you having to have it translated.