The unplugged wedding: couples tell guests to put down their devices

Photo by Nora & Troy at Aurora-Photography.com, used by permission

So there you are at the altar, gazing into the eyes of your beloved, saying your vows. You turn to sneak a glance at your wedding guests, all your favorite beloved friends and family… and are greeted by a sea of down-turned faces staring at their LCD screens.

When your photos come back from your wedding photographer, all your guest shots include your favorite people staring at their favorite devices. People are smiling, but they're all staring at little screens.

Welcome to the era of the over-documented wedding, where, even if you've hired someone to take photos, every guest has a camera and an iPhone and is tweeting the whole event. They're there with you, but are they really present?

Be nice, turn off your device

As a web nerd who spends the majority of my life plugged into my laptop and smartphone, even I think it's critical to take a few moments to be truly present. Smell the air, look around, feel the texture of the world around us. A wedding ceremony is exactly the kind of fleeting, important moment when it's especially valuable to really be present, rather than relating to the world through a small LCD screen. When you discourage devices at your wedding, you encourage your guests to look up and drink in the world. Let's call it "in-the-moment matrimony."

As a web nerd who spends the majority of my life plugged in, even I think it's critical to take a few moments to be truly present.

While many churches have no camera policies, I'm hearing more and more from nontraditional secular couples that they're considering an unplugged wedding — at the very least, asking guests to turn off their devices during the ceremony.

Now, let's acknowledge that a fully plugged-in, hyper-documented wedding makes perfect sense for some couples. Micro-budget brides sometimes skip professional photography, opting to rely on guest photographs — so of course guest cameras make perfect sense in that context. If you're a digerati who announced your engagement via Facebook, had an iPad-wielding officiant, read your vows off an iPhone, and live-streamed your ceremony, then there's no reason you should unplug your wedding. I'm certainly not here to dictate that anyone needs to have less tech at their wedding.

If, however, you and your partner are looking for a few less beeps and a bit more face-to-face connection with your guests, an unplugged wedding could be a good fit for you.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Seltzer Photography, used by permission.

Don't experience our wedding through a viewfinder: the bride perspective

Philadelphia resident Kathleen Harbin, 27, is considering going unplugged for her June 2012 wedding in Antalya, Turkey. "My ceremony will be very short (perhaps 15 minutes)… it could fly by while someone tries to figure out whether their memory card is full. How can I connect with my guests when I can't even see them through the cameras they're holding up?"

How can I connect with my guests when I can't even see them through the cameras they're holding up?

Carrie Kilman, a 35-year-old planning her August 2011 wedding in Madison, WI, has personal experience with the distraction factor. "As a photographer myself, I know how the act of being behind the lens can distance me from the energy of the moment — I become an observer and interpreter, and no longer a true participant. We want our guests to experience our ceremony in a way you typically can't do when you're staring through a viewfinder or fiddling with your iPhone."

She goes on, "Philosophically, I don't like the way digital cameras and camera phones have encouraged the sense that we need to 'capture' everything in order for it feel complete. I'd rather people simply watched and clapped and smiled and cried — and really listened and remembered, not from the photos they downloaded onto their computers, but from their own memories."

Photo by Benj Haisch, used with permission

Dealing with Uncle Bob: the wedding professional perspective

Wedding officiants are starting to get more requests for unplugged ceremonies, as well. Celebrant Jessie Blum, of New Jersey's Eclectic UnionsThey ♥ OBB; we ♥ them said, "I've had a few couples who have requested that NO photos be taken at the ceremony. Often times, when the request comes from the officiant, guests will take note and respect the couple's wishes. Guests get so bogged down in taking photos sometimes — it's nice to be able to step back, and just enjoy the moment!"

Wedding industry insiders even have a name for the aggressive amateur photographer at weddings: Uncle Bob.

Perhaps the strongest proponents of unplugged weddings are professional wedding photographers, who sometimes experience significant challenges working around guests trying to capture the event for themselves. Seattle wedding photographer Jenny JimenezThey ♥ OBB; we ♥ them observed, "Too many wedding crowd shots these days include distracted people checking cell phones and camera LCDs… especially during the processional and recessional."

Wedding industry insiders even have a name for the aggressive amateur photographer getting in the way at weddings: Uncle Bob. You don't have to look very hard to find a million rants about how Uncle Bob has ruined professional wedding photos with the flash from his camera, photobombing gorgeous poses, kneeling in the aisle blocking the view of the vows, and even standing on pews.

Some wedding photographers will even show their couples photos of an Uncle Bob ruining a wedding photo, as a way to encourage their clients to ask guests to put down their cameras.

Apparently, shortly after this photo was taken, the officiant turned around and firmly told this guest to go sit down. Photo by Joe Sanfilippo Photography, used with permission.

Is unplugging right for your wedding?

I want to clarify again: I'm certainly not saying that all weddings should be unplugged, or that guests are doing anything wrong when they have their cameras and phones out. If it doesn't bother the couple, then it's not a problem. As with all things Offbeat Bride, ultimately this wedding decision comes down to what feels right to each couple.

That said, I do think that in this era of 24-hour connectivity, where there's an iPhone in every pocket, a Facebook status update in every encounter, and a digital hobbyist photographer in every family, it's important to carefully consider the issue. Digital devices are ever-present in our daily lives; what role do you want these devices to play at your wedding?

  1. Yes, yes, yes! For our wedding, I only asked that our parents hand their cameras to someone else (this was 7 years ago, and digital cameras were not yet pervasive with our family & friends). My parents did exactly as we asked, and I have several lovely shots of them observing the ceremony. My FIL did not listen, and the only photo we have of him during the ceremony he has his camera to his face. *sigh*.

  2. I've been to a number of weddings where this has been an issue, and a few where it hasn't. I think a lot of it has to do with pure common sense. It should be common sense to not get in a professional photographer's way (or get up & stand behind the bride & groom while they exchange vows, WTF?!), but unfortunately it seems like you really have to spell out for people, sometimes, what is & is not acceptable behavior.

    As for me… well, I'm rather indifferent when it comes to this sort of thing. I agree that being in the moment would be so much more appreciated, but I also know that there are people who want to capture the moment for themselves. My entire childhood was caught on tape/VHS thanks to my mom practically sewing her video camera to her hand, and while it may have kept her "out" of the moments she was capturing, we've had fun over the last two decades going over the videos together, laughing & teasing, and she says she doesn't regret it.

    I will say that when I look back through my prom pics of me & my BF from high school, I have one favorite out of all of them. It was a rather candid pic that a friend snapped of the Boy and I. All of the professional pics were…. well, they were okay. They look nice, they sit in an album at my dad & stepmom's house. But that candid shot is the one I remember and attach the most sentimentality to. And I can't imagine how sad I would be if I didn't have that picture anymore.

    So, I guess it's really up to how you as a couple feel.

    2 agree
  3. As a professional photographer I can understand this to a point. During the wedding and the formal photos it is very distracting to us trying to take photos. I have had an "uncle bob" push me out of the way while I was taking formal photos to take photos. He yelled at me to move it. I told him no and then told everyone who was not in the photos to please leave. I said it very nicely. I was tired of people pushing me out of the way. I've told my brides that I dont care if other people have cameras but when it came to the formals to please let noone else take photos until I was done taking mine. I have had a family member punch me in the face to get a photo of the cake cutting. She said I was in her way and that she wanted a better shot of them cutting the cake. At that point the bride saw and asked everyone to back up and let the photographers do their job. I think the "uncle bobs" take it too seriously and should trust the photographers and watch where the photographers are.

    2 agree
  4. We film weddings with DSLR cameras which are different than traditional video – they give a much more film/cinematic feel to our work. HOWEVER – we can get horrible white banding across the screen when photographers or guests with pro-sumer cameras overshoot a key moment. Check out this video for an example:

    Great article! I'm sure you'll get a lot of support from the event filmmaking industry on this topic.

    3 agree
    • Wow, that's amazing. Not just the flashes, but the laser autofocus, too! And no one seems to know that their cameras don't have to make that stupid imitation clicking sound, either.

      1 agrees
  5. I totally agree! We have asked guests for our September wedding to not post any wedding pictures to any social media sites. We don't want photos posted before we even say "I do!"

    We were a bit worried about making this request — but have received nothing but positive feedback from our guests.

    1 agrees
  6. I totally agree with unplugging. We had less than 20 people at our wedding and hired a professional photographer. Since it was so small, every guest would potentially be in the background of each photo, and we did not want picture-taking in our professional pictures. We did set aside a bit of time after the ceremony for people to use their own cameras, but that was it.

  7. Thank you for this, I'm only new to wedding photography and it's already starting to get to me how many shots are ruined by all the cameras.

  8. This reminds me of the saying 'sometimes the best photograph is the one with you in it'

    1 agrees
  9. As a wedding photographer myself this is a constant issue. Guest and cell phones or cameras consummed with competing with myself for the best shots. I've often times had guest jump up into the isle at the end of the ceremony to photograph the kiss. Of course this completely ruins the photograph that I was paid to take. Or several family members with cameras trying to take pictures while I'm shooting the formals. There is a limited amount of time for the formals and this always will add to it as they seem to think they can take over. Or they will distract those being photographed resulting in people looking in all different directions. It is out of control.

  10. Great article! I shared it on my Facebook fan page. Every little bit helps with spreading the word about Uncle Bob.

  11. We asked guests to leave their cameras at home, enjoy the day, and check out the fab photos our photographers caught as they spent the entire day with us. Sure, a few still brought their cameras, but it was nice only seeing our photographers and videographer surrounding us as we cut the cake and danced our first dance.

    The funny thing is that if you go through FB to see all of the photos we were tagged in from our wedding, majority were from our photographer, with only a few from friends. It was nice knowing everyone used the day to just relax, have fun and be in the moment.

  12. Eventhough I'm used to never get unplugged and like my Canon, Mac and IPhone, I decided to not shoot any Photo on a Wedding unless I got asked to do so. Sometimes hard to believe leaving the stuff at home. :-) keep a smile

    • Great Post! I'm interested in peoples opinions on asking guests NOT to put photos they take up on facebook, or other public places? My Fh and I have recently decided to go sans Facebook, and would like to keep our wedding private and only include people who we invited..or close family and friends that couldn't make it..not masses of people..friends of friends that we havn't spoken to or heard from in years. Is anyone else considering this? We plan of having a private site for displaying all photos for guests to share..just not facebook.

      • These days, it's practically a brave move to keep something like that off Facebook. Bravo. Not everything needs to be shared with the world.

        1 agrees
      • I think I would like to use a private site too, and just post a selection of the pro photos on FB. Mainly for vanity reasons tbh.

  13. I understand this unplugged concept a lot but a wedding I recently attended showed me exactly how useful all those devices can be sometimes…
    I played harp at a family friend's wedding and from the start, a close friend of mine (who's a news photographer who's covered weddings before) had a really bad feeling about the photographer. He was using a flash during the ceremony, flashing us musicians in the face- kinda being an ass. At the reception, he stayed only on the dance floor in the same place the entire time – obviously missing a lot of the older guests who didn't shake their groove thang. He refused to have the standard "fake bouquet toss" picture pose – saying he was good enough to catch it all (we watched his flash go off- he obviously wasn't). He gave the bride's family a higher cost at the reception than was initially negotiated for and left an hour before he told them he would. Thankfully, my friend and I were watching out – the bride and groom were exiting to everyone holding sparklers in a really symbolic gesture for them – and we managed to get video and photos of it all so that they'd have some documentation of it. He was such a horrible photographer – I'm really glad we could make up for that a bit with our own photos.

    1 agrees
    • I'm sorry for your friends bad experience with a "pro", But I do have to wonder why she used him, if she had a bad feeling about him from the get go. My own husband works for a news station and I have shot several Anchor, journalist and news producer weddings, but that doesn't make them any different then any of my clients, If we don't "click" at the consultation, I personally will refer them to someone else, I really feel that "clicking" should be a two sided thing, if the bride is uncomfortable with the photographer, she should just move on. As for pricing, A pro photog will have a contract,which covers both the bride and the photographer. Your friend being a photog herself, really should have known, if there isn't a contract something is wrong, if she did sign a contract, the photog should not have been able to change the fee. As for the fake bouquet toss, I have never "posed" a wedding event in my career, others may have, but when approaching a wedding in a journalistic approach you are documenting a story as it happens, which means everything is as it happens. I wasn't at this wedding and I don't know the photog in question, but if it was an indoor reception, he fired his flash to keep motion blur down. Again, I am really sorry for your friends experience, and I hope she doesn't have a bad taste in her mouth for pro photographers, but there is a huge difference between Photographers and "faux"tographers..I see a lot of things here that could have been done to quell such a disaster. :(

      2 agree
  14. This is a great article, and very timely. I've been photographing and videotaping weddings for two decades, and this past weekend was the worst experience I've ever had at a ceremony. Guests actually stood or sat in the middle of the aisle with their cameras and/or camcorders. One person even used his iPhone to initiate a FaceTime conference with a guest who was either not invited or unable to make it to the ceremony; and to get just the "right angle", he positioned his phone directly next to my camera lens.

    I was completely dumbfounded; I've never had to jockey with the guests for position before. It was a very frustrating experience, and one I'd rather not repeat if at all possible. Thanks for this article; I'll be referring back to it often.

  15. I was married in 2002, long before cell phones with decent cameras were so common, so we didn't have to even think about this. Were I to get married today, I'd definitely have a no-cameras rule during the ceremony. And I'm someone who practically lives online. There's a time and a place for everything, and my wedding ceremony isn't the place for a sea of camera phones.

  16. I think this is great, really lays out the reasons to take a moment and just see, instead of record (I have been guilty of this!)

    I also think that when every guest takes tons of pictures, they are also often willing to post them on facebook, tweet them, put them up all over the place – and frankly I think that the couple should be able to control their images from that special day a bit more.

    I had wedding guests (*ahem* family) who put up 100 pictures of my wedding on facebook – some really not flattering, because she isn't a photographer – before I saw any of them and those were the first glimpse that a lot of friends saw of our ceremony. Not cool.

  17. I think there's a middle ground.
    Tell people to turn their cellphones off. Period.
    And tell them if they are going to take photos, that's fine, but please, no flash in the church, stay in your seat and stay out of the expensive professional photographer's way.

    I'd hate to think we live in a world where our guests can't take their own photos WHILE enjoying the ceremony. There is a balance. It doesn't have to be one or the other. Do we all need to hire "manners police" at special events to remind guests how to act?

    When I got married I had no money for a professional. I relied on my guests and their videos and photos to capture those memories. However, looking back now, even had I been able to afford it, I'd be sad to not have some of those amazing and interesting guest photos.

    3 agree
  18. It seems like a good idea, and I love the concept of having the guests experience the wedding without distraction.

    On the flip side, my cousin planned a beautiful (and expensive) wedding where the wedding photographer lost ALL of their photos. Given, this was in the early days of digital, and he was shooting print, but it was a complete disaster. My father, playing Uncle Bob, was able to give them (digitally) the only pictures that they have of their wedding. Even shooting digitally, a lens or camera malfunction could lead to blurry pictures.

    1 agrees
  19. I've suffered through this while photographing weddings I'm paid to do and then have to almost fallen over people with little digital cameras getting in the way. I've actually had to push in to get the shots needed. The next wedding I do which is in October I will be asking the bride if she can put the message out to get out of mine and the second shooters way

  20. Tell your guests to put down all the cellphones and camera and hire a photographer to get the best photos possible on your special day.

  21. As a professional photographer with 30 yrs experience photographing weddings, I applaud this article. It is becoming more and more difficult to do our job and do it well. More and more people think they could do "our job" just as good. It is more and more difficult as we have to fight to get our shots over the many guests that feel they "Had to get theirs!". I really hope the right people all read this!

    1 agrees
  22. As a photographer I can totally relate to this. I recently photographed and videoed a local theatre production play which was running over several nights. They gave me free tickets to watch the last night so I took my wife along with me. I thoroughly enjoyed watching it and not worrying about getting the picture, it was an entirely different experience.

  23. When I walk down the aisle… I want to see faces, not camera lenses!

  24. Sorry to hear this has happened to you. Most pro photographers nowadays have photo galleries for the wedding couple & their guests to view & purchase photos online. In addition, most pro's do try to take candids of all the guests for the wedding couple to see all the great folks that attended their wedding.

  25. WORD. Uncle Bob is my worst nightmare/biggest thorn in my side. I shot a wedding once where the entire bride's side of the family was wielding DSLRs and it made it freaking IMPOSSIBLE to get the shots we needed. Half of my ceremony photos half the same dang woman kneeling in the aisle. GAH!
    Also- great job marketing this article- I literally saw the link for it EVERYWHERE yesterday. Great job!

  26. One thing you forgot to mention is the beeping noises from all those point and shoots! I was a guest at a wedding this past week–and could often times barely hear the priest because of it!!!

    2 agree
  27. I agree about cell phones being turned off during the ceremony, but I personally LOVED seeing all of the different pictures that my guests got at the wedding. I didn't even notice anyone taking pictures, not even my photographer, because I was so into my husband and our ceremony. Plus, your photographer can't get every single shot. You'd be surprised at what a guest captures that your highly paid photog doesn't. One of our favorite shots from that day was taken by a guest.

    4 agree
    • if one of guests happened to ruin your highly paid photographer's shot, you wouldn't say the same thing.

      1 agrees
    • Guests and family members who are decent-to-good photographers often capture the very best shots of the day because they know the couple. They get the essence of the moment that a mere hired gun, no matter how talented, just can't apprehend.

      1 agrees
  28. I couldn't agree more
    Be present for once
    Trust that a professional photographer is at hand to document and details the events
    If I had a pound for every down-the-isle photo ruined by a waiving nokia camera phone in rhe forgeound I'd be rich!

  29. Amen! I have had that last photo happen to me. does the guest really think this is a good place to stand? geese! cool site you got here ;)

  30. I'm a flight attendant, so you can be sure everyone will be asked to "turn off and stow all electronic devices"-or else they will delay the commencement of the ceromony!!! ;)

    4 agree
  31. I was a Second Photographer at a wedding on friday. There was an Uncle Bob of the worst variety there. Kept standing in the aisle during the vows (I had to walk down the aisle 3 times to tell him to move), the main photographer at the front had to tell him to shift a few times too, he was standing up when everyone else were seated and then afterwards tried to conduct his own formal group shots. Got in the way of everything. After I left apparently he got worse! He totally ruined one of my shots of the couple walking back up the aisle when he jumped out behind them to take photos and in doing so held up the rest of the bridal party

  32. Hands down best article I have ever seen on this topic.. This needs to stop at weddings.. I don't know how many wedding photos have been ruined because of this issue

  33. Wow… Very interesting read. I completely understand why some people would want it, but one of my favourite photos is actually one of the professional photos – a picture of my sister (my amateur photographer for the day) taking a photo. Her face, her stance, everything about this photo screams "her" to me – her love of photography, and the absolute joy in her face at being able to have her very own memories of our day through her own lense.

    Yes, I was a little daunted by the whole crowd having cameras – but I think I would have been more daunted by everyone's faces and the raw emotion some of them were showing (that were thankfully covered by their cameras).

    This is a great eye-opener to other people's ideas though – something I'll be trying to take on board when I'm a wedding guest in the future, but for me, the photo of my sister taking a photo (usually a very corny photo) was actually beautiful, and I'm so glad I have that when it completely encompasses her as a person…

  34. Our Best Man asked our guests to switch off their phones (in a nice way)and since some of them work for a large mobile phone company this was done as a joke.
    Also no flash photography was allowed in the ceremony room, so this discouraged people from having there cameras there and just had them later when photos were done.

  35. 90% wedding I attended, they won't give you back the pictures they took with you. they won't show you the wedding video. I guess because most of wedding photographer charge you for digital print out, digital copies.

    Past month, How many people in the world watch Royal Prince wedding? Million? right. Why? … ….. anyway.
    If you are going to get marry, unless you will share all the picture and video to all your guest. if not. and you want all your guest off camera. no way, guest will be every upset. Taking picture and video are the fun part for the guest and they all have right to keep it for their memory.

  36. Thank you for writing so eloquently about a topic that often disturbed me during a number of ceremonies of close friends and families. Uncle Bobs are not only nuisance to the couple and professional photographers, but to the guests as well who actually want to enjoy the beautiful couple and not watch the back of Bob’s head that’s blocking the entire view. As a guest, I had a post-ceremony disagreement with another guest, who felt so sure that his pictures will be better than the professionals’. It was a complete distraction. I don’t mind posing for pictures during the reception. In fact, that’s when dancing and mingling with friends takes place, when it is absolutely fun to snap away. I just wish I had the article in my hands before the wedding so that the ceremony would be left in the hands of the professionals. SO GLAD I came across your blog, at least I am not the only one who thinks the wedding ceremony is still sacred and should be regarded as such

  37. YES! As an environmental educator, I start out every field trip by telling all the kids to put all their devices away, even to take pictures–because how can you be sure that you're looking at the flower or whatever it is, and not just at the picture of the flower? The extent to which we're plugged in seriously does detract from our actual sensual experience of a situation. I didn't even THINK about doing this at my wedding, but I'm going to!

  38. i am a wedding cinematograher and more I edit this year's weddings, guests with cameras gets more and more unstoppable and out of control. I know there is certain moments that guests would like to capture on their own, but please, during entire ceremony, and formal dances, I wish them to simply sit down and enjoy the moment with and FOR the couple instead of staring at those tiny LCDs.

  39. It actually makes me sad when when I see parents with a camera glued to their faces throughout the whole ceremony.
    Enjoy the moment and be part of it rather than hiding behind the camera!
    -Chris

  40. As a wedding photographer in Prague, I used to see this problem all of the time. I actually added to my contract that during the ceremony absolutely no one except myself and or my assistants are allowed to take pictures. Because of this the ceremony tends to be more serene, intimate and beautiful. BTW I do not use flash during the ceremony. 'Pros' should never truly have to rely on flash in this day and age – to do so shows that he/she does not have the proper equipment, lenses or is simply lazy.

    When I go to weddings where I am not working (one's where the pro does not have this clause), I tend to notice the 'uncle Bob's' running around in their sneakers, popping their flashes (like crazy), and backing up into things like flowers stands, candles and even other 'photographers' and on the alter, in the aisles, simply anywhere. What should have been an intimate, unforgettable moment becomes instead a circus where the 'photographers' are running amok and become the center of attention themselves.

    During the rest of the day, anything goes and as a photographer I actually enjoy creating images where the many cameras and phone are stuffed in their faces as I intentionally include this kind of imagery.These people are in their own way sharing in the moment. It has recently become a game of 'how many iphones and cameras do you see in THAT picture? Is it funny? Yes. Is it a pain to deal with? Yes! Can I as a pro make great images including this? Yes! I am a Pro!

    I do think it is unreasonable to not allow people to take their own pictures during the rest of the day – with the exception of the portrait session. That session is to be intimate and clients are explained this so that there are no problems. After all you can 'blame it on the photographer as he/she does not allow anyone to tag along on the portrait sessions.'

    But what I truly miss about the lack of cameras and the ubiquitous camera phones that nearly everyone wields at a wedding? The simple, classy look of people enjoying the moment throughout their wedding day and their family and friends actually joining them in the celebrations. The only person who should really be working is the professional photographer hired to be there.
    Kurt Vinion

    1 agrees
  41. Thank you for this well articulated article! I think we'll be adding a link to this on our recommended resources page!

  42. It's not just cell phones and cameras that clog up the wedding, video cameras need to be included. I professionally shoot video, and I was at a wedding where 4 guests with video cameras were perched up on the alter, along side myself. I was hired to produce a professional wedding DVD, but had to laugh at the do-it-yourselfers who were trying to hand hold their cameras steady for over 45 minutes. Mine was on a tripod. I asked one of the guests with a video camera why, and the response was that his video was going to be his wedding gift. How sad.

  43. I wish all couples would do this. I shared it on my fb page as well. I've had guests jump into the aisle just as the bride and her father start coming down the aisle, so all I get is an image of someones behind. No respect anymore.

  44. We had an unplugged wedding, and I am so happy we did! No random pictures of our wedding posted on Facebook before we got a chance to look at them, no fiddling with cameras and phones during our wedding, and it allows the professionals to do their job. It only managed to tick off one person, who quickly got over it. It was also nice to gift family with pictures and relive the wedding instead of possibly unflattering pictures

    1 agrees
  45. This is so annoying.
    I've photographed a few weddings on a professional basis and have experienced guests literally getting in my way when trying to take pictures of the wedding party and family members I have posed.
    It would have been so much easier if the bride and groom or another family member had reassured them that they could have copies and reminded them that it was most important that I was the one getting the shots.

  46. Though I've been totally annoyed by the sea of guests swarming each special moment with their point and shoot cameras, I've learned to embrace them as well and use the "Uncle Bob" to create interesting compositions which my clients love.
    Don't get me wrong. I would love an unplugged wedding. I've just never seen one.

    1 agrees
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