Shalyn Nelson, 30, has been a wedding photographer since 2011 — and a self-professed "hopeless romantic" since birth. Her husband, Andrew, also 30, even assists on all of her shoots.
But rather than filling her life with love, a few years on the wedding circuit left Nelson feeling surprisingly jaded.
"With social media and all the pressure nowadays, people can get caught up in details and forget that they’re getting married — that they're in love," Nelson told TODAY. "I see them getting divorced, not fighting for it.
"As a photographer, I wanted to tell stories that inspire people to value marriage like they used to," she said.
And Nelson knew just where to start: with her grandparents, Joe Ray and Billie Wanda Johnson, 86 and 83 — whose own love story sparked Nelson's appreciation for romance. In November 2014, she asked "Mamaw and Papaw" (as she calls them) if they would be up for their own photo shoot, a gift for their 63rd anniversary.
They were game — "But Shalyn, what will I wear?" asked Mamaw. Nelson, of course, had a plan. After shopping for a dress on the sly ("Mamaw is short with really big boobs — I was stuffing my coat into dresses to make sure they would fit!" she said with a laugh), she rallied a team of florists, hair and makeup artists, and other vendors from the wedding world. The crew traveled several hours from Austin, Texas, to the little town of Jewett to bring Mamaw and Papaw's big day to life.
What Nelson didn't plan for is how emotional she got behind the lens. "I went to take the very first picture, held the camera up and pulled it back down," Nelson recalled. "My eyes got watery. I thought, 'This is just so special.' Even my friend who was doing hair said, 'Shalyn, I can't watch!'"
"They were laughing; their eyes were sparkling," Nelson said. "My Papaw is a big goofball ... He said, 'This is the most action I’ve gotten in a long time!'"
To add to the romance of the day, Nelson had asked her grandparents to write letters to each other and read them aloud during the shoot. But her favorite moment was a silent one, in which they simply sat and stared at one another.
"He was holding her face and looking into her eyes. You can see every wrinkle. It was so intense," she said. "I think they forgot how to look at each other. Now it's something they'll never forget."
Nelson teased the photos on Instagram before first sharing them on popular wedding blog Style Me Pretty on Valentine's Day 2015, and was shocked and delighted by how others connected with her grandparents' story. The shoot has since become part of a larger series called "Love, the Nelsons," in which Nelson will travel the world photographing "old love stories" in hopes of eventually compiling them into a book.
And Mamaw and Papaw — now married 65 years — continue to live out their love story every day. "They have their own love language," said Nelson. "She cooks for him. There's a rose bush outside their bedroom window, and he'll cut a rose and bring it to the breakfast table, because he calls her 'the rose of his life.'"
She added, "It's the little things that make you look at them and say, 'That’s what I want.'"