More grave accusations of professional misconduct committed by award-winning wedding photographer, Ryan Schembri, have emerged following recent coverage involving dozens of disgruntled clients.
Inside Imaging heard from 10 professional photographers and clients who said Schembri failed to deliver goods, services, or refunds amounting to thousands of dollars per case. A former colleague estimates there could be up to 40 clients awaiting photo albums or pictures.
These issues surfaced after Fairfax coverage published several accounts of distraught clients, who have been left waiting for up to five years for photo albums and pictures.
It now appears Schembri has exhibited a similar pattern of behaviour towards colleagues, employees, workshop co-hosts, and mentor program participants.
‘This story should not be about a photographer not coping with a heavy backlog,’ Melbourne wedding photographer, Ashley Karakatsanis, informed Inside Imaging. ‘It should be about a man who’s [allegedly] committed fraud. …Ryan should never ever touch a camera again.’
Schembri is one of Australia’s most celebrated wedding photographers. As a 20-year-old he was the youngest photographer ever to earn the title of AIPP Grand Master, and in 2012 he won the AIPP Wedding Photographer of the Year award.
He served in numerous senior positions at the AIPP, won a long list of awards and titles, was a regular speaker at the Wedding and Portrait Photographers International (WPPI) Expo, and is a former Canon Master.
He photographed luxurious weddings around the world, and taught workshops and seminars everywhere he went. Everything tagged with the ‘Ryan Schembri’ brand came with a premium price. One client told Inside Imaging he paid Schembri $7000 plus flights and accommodation to shoot their wedding in New Zealand, and an additional $2800 for a photo album they never received. When it comes to the wedding photography business, that’s about as good as it gets. Schembri must have been among the industry’s top earners.
So it sent a shock wave through the photo industry when Fairfax published the damning report about one of Australia’s best wedding photographers failing his clients. Not everyone was surprised.
Years ago Karakatsanis referred a good friend to Schembri. ‘I regarded Ryan as a well-respected, accomplished and talented photographer. After all he was a Canon Master and held impressive titles from WPPI and AIPP.’
Several months after shooting the wedding, the client had yet to see an image. After a series of broken promises, he stopped communicating with the client, and eventually provided a Dropbox link with 30 random unedited images that hadn’t been culled.
After going silent again, Karakatsanis mailed a hard drive to Schembri and had him post it to her so she could edit the photos. Schembri confirmed she helped him edit the photos. The final task was to deliver a photo album.
‘One year later, and again after unanswered emails and messages, she still doesn’t have her album or prints,’ Karakatsanis said.
She said that making matters worse was he was far from truthful to the client ‘and how long he was willing to string her along.’ ‘He told her the album had been posted before Christmas “but Australia Post must of lost it”. She then contacted the album company (GraphiStudios) directly, and was told they had no such order. Ryan had even [allegedly] made a fake email and receipt for the purchase of the album. After she confronted him with the e-mail from GraphiStudios he blocked her. No contact could be made.’
Another business client paid Schembri $2000 last year for videography. ‘I received nothing but a continuous stream of messages initially lying that he had already emailed it – I received nothing and had checked all spam folders. And then endless promises that he was uploading it the next day, which never eventuated,’ she said.
‘To be honest, I felt really let down and a little angry as I had paid him knowing that all businesses are having a tough time in Covid and he would need the money, and trusting he would follow through understanding I was also a business doing my best in a challenging time with a family to support as well.’
She requested anonymity as she didn’t want to jeopardise her chances of receiving a refund.
Running (away from) workshops
Revered New York wedding photographer, Susan Stripling, first met Schembri when he was a teenager at WPPI.
‘He has always been ferociously talented and extremely charismatic,’ recalls Stripling to Inside Imaging. ‘I judged with him at WPPI print competition, heard him speak, and knew him vaguely socially. I thought nothing but the best of him for many, many years.’
After hosting a ‘truly stellar’ sold-out workshop at her New York studio in June 2019, Schembri proposed Stripling co-host two workshops: one in New York in December, 2019, and another in London in January, 2020.
He organised both two-day events and sold tickets through event management platform, Eventbrite. The New York workshop sold out quickly, but the London ticket sales were sluggish.
‘About a month before the New York workshop, a few photographers reached out to me and told me that I really needed to get paid [by Ryan] before the workshop or else I wouldn’t. [They said] That Ryan had a history of not paying people. That seemed totally out of line with the Ryan I thought I knew, but I reached out anyhow, asked for payment in advance, and he sent it.’
When the pair ran the New York workshop, Stripling said Schembri came with a different teaching curriculum. He was more interested in ‘life coaching’ than teaching photography, and was pushing an intensive one-on-one mentorship program to attendees.
‘It was a huge sales pitch. I kept trying to divert him from doing it, since he’d never mentioned wanting to sell that, but he cosied up to attendees during breaks. This made me wildly uncomfortable, but I wasn’t sure what to do about it.’
During this workshop Schembri met Kelly, a budding wedding photographer from Minnesota who showed interest in the mentorship program. More on that later…
After day one of the New York workshop, Schembri apparently told Stripling his upcoming flights back to Australia had been cancelled and he had to leave the following day or he would miss a wedding. He taught half of the next day and then left.
‘I finished the workshop and then went home and looked up the itinerary he sent me before he came to NYC – none of the flights were cancelled. Nothing was cancelled. Where the heck did he go?’
The two-day London workshop cost £1200, and was advertised to run on January 27-28, 2020, at The Caledonian Club. Only around five tickets had sold, and with the event more than a month away the pair cancelled the workshop, and Stripling said Ryan agreed to e-mail attendees and refund them.
In mid-January the New York photographer received e-mails from London workshop payees enquiring about the upcoming workshop.
‘Totally horrified, I contacted Ryan who had a fumbling excuse for why he hadn’t emailed everyone six weeks ago like we’d agreed. He said he would reach out and offer to do the workshop solo for everyone who signed up, because he had to be in London that week “for a big shoot”. I said absolutely not, and to sort everyone out right now. I tried to log into his Eventbrite with the password he’d given me, only to find out the account was locked for non-payment.’
Stripling claims Schembri then sent her ‘false receipts’, and she then called The Caledonian Club. ‘They had no idea who he [Schembri] was. He hadn’t booked anything.’ The venue confirmed to Inside Imaging that there was no event booking.
Responding to these allegations, Schembri claims he made an unpaid reservation and cancelled it before the booking was confirmed. He said Eventbrite was responsible for the hiccup in regards to issuing refunds. Schembri failed to come up with proof of a venue booking reservation, despite assuring Inside Imaging he would.
Stripling assisted three workshop payees to pursue refunds. She said some, but not everyone, sorted it out. Schembri confirmed there is one payee still awaiting a refund.
‘Since all of this happened,’ Stripling said, ‘at least a dozen photographers have reached out to me with similar stories: workshops he disappeared on, mentorships that never happened, people he hired for second shooting/assisting jobs he didn’t pay, vendors he hasn’t paid.’
Mentor as anything
Kelly hadn’t heard of Schembri before the New York workshop in November. But he was a charismatic and confident photographer hosting a workshop alongside Stripling, one of her idols, who was connected with the who’s who of wedding photographers.
His one-on-one mentor program pitch caught her attention. As a middle-aged photographer, Kelly wanted someone to inspire her to take risks – someone to hold her accountable, and wasn’t afraid to ‘push me to the next level’.
‘Ryan, of course, promised me every bell and whistle,’ Kelly told Inside Imaging. ‘You name it, man, this guy promised it.’
Kelly says the 12-month personal coaching program consisted of: monthly group coaching calls; access to call recordings; unlimited one-on-one coaching calls; unlimited attendance to his signature two-day light and pose workshops; a six-day health and mindfulness retreat in Italy, including shooting a wedding alongside Schembri; access to a third-party online course called Transform Your Wealth; online coaching via Schembri’s ex-wife’s life coaching business.
Total value: $18,997. But for Kelly, $5000. Well, actually, one payment of AUD$1000, and US$4000, equalling roughly AUD$5158.
‘Over the course of many months, it was always me reaching out to Ryan. He didn’t once contact me. If you’re going to be the “life coach”, you’d think you’d be following up with your students, giving them homework, checking in, encouraging them – any communication at all. But there was zero.
‘Look, I don’t need a mentor that’s in my office sitting next to me. I’m a big girl. But I do need someone to keep me engaged, motivated and excited. If I’m constantly begging, that’s not fun – it’s exhausting. I don’t need to pay for that.’
Kelly didn’t receive a single monthly group coaching call, and received only one recording where Ryan edited her photos. Watching him work his post-processing skills on her work was the only highlight. Of the ‘unlimited one-on-one coaching calls’, Kelly had just five sessions in 12 months, and they all lacked structure.
And the six-day Italy retreat was postponed and cancelled when Covid hit.
By mid-2020, the morsels of communication Kelly squeezed out of Schembri dried up. ‘The last three scheduled calls were cancelled. He’d make an appointment, then would tell me he’s running late and ask to reschedule tomorrow,’ she said.
‘The last time I got really mad. It was on my birthday, and my dad has advancing Alzheimer’s (disease). It was the only day he (Schembri) was available, and he cancelled again. My dad needs to eat at a specific time of the day, but I wasn’t able to have dinner because I’m waiting for this call from Ryan. We’re approaching this one-year mark of mentoring, and I feel like we haven’t even started. I’m embarrassed. I don’t want to tell my husband.’
By March 2021 Kelly requested a full refund from Schembri for failing to fulfill the mentorship program agreement. What followed was an excruciatingly frustrating e-mail exchange that’s still ongoing. Kelly said Schembri is loaded with excuses regarding payment delays and claims to have sent partial refunds. She said the money never entered her account and seemingly vanished into the ether of the international banking system!
Kelly is yet to receive a partial refund. Schembri said he never lied to Stripling, Kelly, or any clients, and never provided fake payment documents. He also believes the mentorship provided some value.
The Minnesota photographer was hesitant to share this story, as she is concerned this will be the final nail in the coffin for achieving a desirable outcome. But she hopes this will help others to find the courage to speak out when someone takes advantage of them.
‘I want more people to feel confident enough when they have something bad happen to them,’ she said. ‘And I fell into several traps along the way. I thought that because so-and-so trusts him (Schembri), I should trust him. He’s got a big reputation – lots of awards. He’s like the cool kid at school, and I fell for it. He’s well respected by so many and yet here I am feeling suspicious. So I questioned myself – “what’s wrong with me?”’
An industry secret?
Prior to the Fairfax coverage, the only red flag publicly available is a 2008 Fred Miranda photography forum thread about someone not receiving a $200 instructional wedding photography DVD from the photographer.
The lack of bad publicity led clients to believe their experience was a one-off anomaly. They had no idea they were in good company, and others were lining up to join them.
An Instagram account, @ryan_schembriphoto_review_page, was set up to bring clients and colleagues together, so they may keep tabs on whether the photographer is delivering on his promise to create a satisfactory outcome. So far no clients have reported receiving a photo album, and it has been almost a month since the Fairfax coverage.
Schembri told Inside Imaging his divorce left him broke, meaning he cannot provide refunds or cover the costs of photo albums. He claims to have finished four photo albums since the Fairfax coverage.
He described the negative publicity as a ‘witch hunt’ and a catch-22 situation, as it may hinder his ability to earn money through workshops and weddings and therefore deliver refunds and albums.
Inside Imaging held off publishing this article for a week at the request of Schembri, to give him time to may refute the accusations against him with evidence and connect us with any clients who received a photo album.
Despite claiming to have sent us an e-mail and awaiting a response, we’re yet to receive any information from Schembri refuting these allegations. Beyond this, Inside Imaging is making no accusations of wrong-doing against Ryan Schembri, but only that they have been made by a range of his customers and colleagues.
Canon Australia informed Inside Imaging that Schembri is no longer a Canon Master, however the decision to not renew the contract wasn’t related to complaints regarding his professional conduct. Up until 2018 he was still collaborating with Canon Australia. The AIPP cancelled his membership in September 2020.
He’s currently advertising a 370€ two-day workshop in Napoli, Italy, to run on May 29-30 at NH Hotels; and still advertises himself as an AIPP and WPPI Grand Master.