Disgruntled customers who paid thousands of dollars to a once-feted wedding photographer but say they never received their prints have failed to enforce their consumer rights across state borders.
The Sun-Herald revealed in April last year Ryan Schembri, a former Australian Photographer of the Year who worked with some of Sydney’s top wedding planners, had dozens of disappointed customers.
Schembri last year accepted blame for not delivering contracted goods to a backlog of about 30 customers, citing “snowballing” mental health issues after his father’s death in 2016. He called the article “a wake-up call” and promised to mend his ways.
But more than a year after the Sun-Herald exposé, there are still customers who have been waiting for their photos for several years, plus more customers married since the article with similar claims.
The disputes highlight the difficulty of pursuing a case under Australian Consumer Law, particularly the jurisdictional issues that arise because Schembri lives on the Gold Coast and mostly shoots weddings in Sydney.
Priyanka Aggarwala paid $16,520 for Schembri to shoot her “big Indian wedding” with five functions last June. Her invoice states she would receive digital photos, five canvases, and a wedding album. The sum includes $1000 which she says was a change-of-date fee after COVID-19 forced them to reschedule.
Aggarwala said she received her digital files in October and her canvas enlargements in March, but was still waiting for her album.
“I have gotten [some of] my wedding photos after a very, very long time of basically begging for them and trying to chase Ryan up for months,” she said.
“It’s just been a lot of excuses, like ‘I’ve sent it to your work’ and ‘I don’t have my car because my brother’s using my car’ and ‘I have COVID now’ and ‘I’m not in Sydney, I’m in the Gold Coast, so I can’t get it to you.”
The Sun-Herald has seen screenshots of text messages between Aggarwala and Schembri.
Daniel and Steph Wingsmith, from Brisbane, said they were waiting on a promised refund of $2000 after cancelling a videographer for their August 2021 wedding. The Sun-Herald has seen messages showing Schembri agreed to the refund, provided a bank remittance for a $500 instalment, and the Wingsmiths informed him the money did not arrive. Daniel Wingsmith said they usually had to contact Schembri multiple times before he responded, which felt like “being ghosted”.
In an interview with the Sun-Herald last week, Schembri said he had resolved outstanding work with 20 customers since the article last April, but acknowledged there remained unresolved cases from before 2021, including one from 2015. He also said there were five new customers from weddings last year who were still waiting for their prints.
He disagreed he had failed to provide the agreed refunds, and said he would deliver all outstanding goods. He said the turnaround time was also affected by how long it took couples to select their images for the album.
Schembri also claimed some customers were using the threat of media coverage as “a bit of ammo … to get more money out of me”. He said he was responsive to messages except on weekends when he was shooting.
Schembri said future problems should be greatly reduced because any bookings made after last April he only offered digital photos, directing orders for prints directly to other businesses.
Schembri also said he was focusing on freelance work shooting for other photography studios because it “relieves the pressure of the work associated before and after” a wedding and lets him focus on the photography itself.
“Obviously there was an issue in me delivering on prints and albums for people and there was a hold-up there on my end, which I took responsibility for originally,” Schembri said. “I wanted to take that out of my hands and get back to really what I am good at, and that is with a camera and photographing.”
Schembri said he was seeing a counsellor for his mental health and felt like he was “getting on top of things”.
The Sun-Herald has seen claims from about 10 customers about Schembri, and reviewed the evidence for five customers in depth.
Customers who tried to take action through NSW Fair Trading or the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal were left frustrated.
Pali and Marcelo Delgado were married in November 2019. Their invoice states for $8000 they would receive a pre-wedding shoot, Schembri and a second photographer on the wedding day, all images on USB, and a 50-page fine-art wedding album for which they paid $100 a page to upgrade from a standard 30-page album. They say the pre-wedding shoot did not happen, and they never received the album – though they randomly received someone else’s album of a lingerie model shoot. They say they obtained their digital files after months of chasing.
When Schembri failed to deliver the Delgados’ wedding album, the couple contacted NSW Fair Trading without success and then tried to take action in the NSW tribunal.
A letter from the tribunal from April 2021 says it “declined to determine the application” because the dispute came under federal jurisdiction.
The NSW tribunal cannot determine disputes where one party is interstate, unless that party is a corporation, a NSW government agency, a resident of a territory, or an overseas resident.
Schembri’s invoices show he is billing as Schemry [sic] Trading Trust trading as Ryan Schembri Photographer. A trading trust is not a corporation.
The trust was registered with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission in 2016, but public records do not identify the trustee. Schembri said he didn’t know why his business is run through a trust, saying “that’s just the way the accountant set it up – you’d have to ask them”.
While Brendan and Andrea Oxford, the couple featured in the Sun-Herald article last year, received a refund after winning their case in the NSW tribunal, the finding was technically recorded against a company called XSiGHT. Schembri was at the time representing Victorian-based XSiGHT in NSW under a business licence, and the Oxfords say XSiGHT provided the refund. The Sun-Herald does not allege any wrongdoing by XSiGHT.
The letter from the tribunal noted a verbal agreement made between the Delgados and Schembri, whereby Schembri would refund $1000 a week, and if he managed to finish the wedding album by a certain date, then the money would be returned to him.
The Delgados say Schembri paid a few instalments, then stopped and also missed the deadline. Two years after their wedding, they say they agreed to drop the matter if he provided a few more edited digital photos, which he did.
“We’re speaking out really just to give some kind of warning to other people that are planning their weddings to check referrals,” Pali Delgado said. “If we had looked on Google, we would have found that he had issues with other people.”
Carmen Hickey, who lives in regional NSW but was married in Sydney in July 2018, has an invoice showing she paid a discounted price of $6000 for a pre-wedding shoot, two photographers in attendance, a 30-page wedding album, a USB of all images and a canvas enlargement.
The Sun-Herald has seen text messages and emails between Hickey and Schembri spanning from 2018 to 2021 about the quality of the images and the absence of her wedding album. She said she only ever received low-resolution images, which Schembri disputes.
Hickey asked for a partial refund and then lodged a complaint with NSW Fair Trading.
However, Fair Trading replied in December 2020 saying it was unable to assist further after it had contacted the trader via “all methods available and all attempts to obtain a response [had] been unsuccessful”.
Hickey filed a small claim in the Local Court and the matter is still outstanding.
Hickey, a wedding photographer herself, says she worked unpaid as a second photographer for him at several weddings because he always promised her “a really juicy album” for her own wedding. She feels let down because she counted Schembri as a friend and mentor.
“He promised us the world and didn’t deliver on our wedding day,” Hickey said. “It’s embarrassing because I had high expectations … and what he produced was so crap.”
Email correspondence suggests Schembri placed an order for Hickey’s album with GraphiStudio in March last year, but the regional director notified Hickey in June that Schembri had not paid.
Schembri said he spoke to Hickey’s husband last week and their matter was “being dealt with”. Hickey said her husband had called Schembri, who claimed he had ordered the album in the past few days, but was unable to provide proof.
Schembri said he was dealing with two cases in the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal where the customers lived in NSW. He was unaware if they would have to travel for the hearing. Schembri said the tribunal system was generally good, but he would like more support for the small business owner and more opportunities for mediation.
Consumer Policy Research Centre chief executive Erin Turner, commenting generally on the legal system rather than the Schembri case, said the system put the burden on individual customers to take action through state tribunals to enforce their rights.
“This means that repeat offenders and businesses with bad practices are too often let off the hook,” Turner said.
Turner said a regulator such as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission or a state fair trading department should be able to take companies to court to seek penalties when a business repeatedly fails to meet the consumer guarantees.
The federal government consulted on reforms earlier in the year that would strengthen the consumer guarantees stronger, she said.
A spokesperson for NSW Fair Trading said the department receives more than 40,000 complaints each year and between 50 and 150 are about wedding photographers and videographers.
The spokesperson said Fair Trading was aware of complaints against Ryan Schembri but they did not exceed the threshold of 10 a month to be added to the agency’s complaints register.
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