ST. PETE BEACH — Chelsea Carter of Bradenton wasn't the least bit suspicious as she boarded a chartered sailboat in St. Pete Beach for what she was told was a family sunset cruise for her boyfriend's mother's birthday. She wasn't even suspicious when everyone canceled, claiming illness.
She wasn't suspicious when she found a photographer on board who claimed to be taking marketing shots for the charter company. It wasn't until her now-fiance, Jamison Asbridge, sat her down in the captain's chair, took a knee in front of her and pulled out a ring that she realized she had been set up for a surprise proposal.
And the photographer?
That was Brittany Knight-Echemendia, a local photographer hired in advance by Asbridge to capture the moment he popped the question.
It's an emerging market called proposal photography. It's akin to wedding photography, but it requires the ability to blend in, hide or flat-out lie to get in place for the big shot.
Asbridge found Knight-Echemendia through the website howheasked.com.
"I was looking online to get ideas for a proposal," Asbridge said. "The website advised to capture the moment so she can look back on it later in life."
He planned the entire evening ahead, and after contacting Knight-Echemendia, pulled her into the ruse.
She said at every shoot, she has to either lie or hide. "I usually try to pass as a random person just taking nature photography," she said. "But I'm not above hiding in the bushes."
Knight-Echemendia said she usually meets with clients a day or two in advance at the spot where they're going to propose. She tells them where to stand, they come up with a cover story or a plan to keep her in the background, and — most important — she gets a visual on her client. "I don't want to show up and shoot the wrong people," she said.
After the proposal, the session turns into a shoot for engagement photos, so a package could run anywhere from $350 to $700 for 75 to 100 digital shots.
She says calls are really picking up for the proposal packages.
"I've done about 12 over the past year, but I've had three just this week," she said recently.
Eddie Brewer of LX Photography agrees. "We have seen a few more calls for these photos," he said. "People realize that this is only going to happen once, and they don't want it cheapened by bad cellphone pics. They want to see a meaningful moment."
The plans can get elaborate, too. One groom-to-be sent his partner around town for breakfast, shopping and a spa visit before meeting up with him at the Vinoy, where they put a puzzle together.
When complete, the puzzle read, "Will you make today the rest of forever?" And Knight-Echemendia was there in the background, shooting away. "It's such an amazing moment," she said. "People want to share it with their family and friends. It takes the memory to the next level when you can pull it out and look at it on any anniversary."
Being a tourist destination, the Pinellas beaches and downtown St. Petersburg draw hopefuls from all over the country. Michael Borich and Teri Stokes came to Pass-a-Grille from Charlotte, N.C., for a supposed birthday trip for Stokes. Borich planned a beach walk, with Knight-Echemendia waiting near an appointed bench, supposedly taking shots of the sunset. "I just wanted to be able to capture the moment and be able to look back on it later," Borich said.
The entire plan always hinges on the photographer's ability to blend into the background. If she's found out, the jig is up. Carter said Knight-Echemendia's portrayal of a marketing photographer was spot-on.
"I had no idea. He did really well hiding it, but she was more convincing than he was."