On July 26, 2020, Nikolina Kovalenko and Stefan Ponova found themselves exchanging vows on the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset. No bridesmaids nor groomsmen, parents nor photographer, just the couple and their minister—plus a passerby who randomly captured the only photo from the ceremony.
The image quickly went viral when Nevona Friedman tweeted it, writing, "If you were getting married on the Brooklyn Bridge this evening, I've got some photos for you!" Thousands of retweets, comments and likes later, the picture finally went into the hands of the newlyweds.
"When I realized they didn't have a photographer or a guest I definitely wanted to make sure to get a good picture," Friedman told Brides of the incident. "I put it up on Twitter mostly as a joke...not thinking I would ever find them. The next day people were connecting me to the bride."
It was the bride's For Love and Lemons dress (which she pulled from her closet the day of!) and back tattoo that helped social media users identify the mystery couple."[The couple] didn't even know anyone was taking pictures or that they would ever see them so its this really special look that they have where they're just acting really authentically," adds Friedman.
This is more like a symbol, something that people need to see right now. Something beautiful, something hopeful to see that love prevails no matter what.
Grateful for Friedman's instinct (the couple plan to thank her with dinner after the pandemic), although, initially shocked by the powerful reaction on social media the newlyweds realized their elopement was more than just a wedding ceremony. "We realized that maybe this is not actually about us," Kovalenko tells Brides. "This is more like a symbol, something that people need to see right now. Something beautiful, something hopeful to see that love prevails no matter what."
But perhaps what is even more endearing than their viral ceremony is the story of how the couple met. It happened in August of 2019 while both were on separate backpacking trips. Kovalenko, an environmental artist, was just beginning her journey while Ponova, an engineer, was finishing his two-and-a-half-year-long excursion around the world when they came across each other in South America. "We met dancing salsa in Colombia and we just had this incredible connection," Kovalenko recalls. So much so that she invited Ponova to join her on the next leg of the trip the following morning. "When I was at the bus station at 6 a.m. he was already there with his backpack. Our first date was a 10-hour bus ride on the worst road in Colombia."
We travel, we wake up, we climb a mountain together, we climb back from the mountain, make dinner together—we always were spending this much time together 24/7.
From there, the couple spent the next few weeks together traveling to Ecuador and Peru before Ponova had to fly home. "The day he was leaving he showed me he already booked the tickets to come back and meet me again in Patagonia in a month and a half." Kovalenko and Ponova spent their days climbing mountains and exploring mountains and spent their nights together sleeping under the stars. They celebrated Christmas in Buenos Aires and beach hopped in Brazil before flying to Egypt so Kovalenko could collect materials for her latest artistic series.
A month later they found themselves in her New York apartment—just before the COVID-19 shutdown. "It was definitely another adventure on our journey together," she says of quarantining together adding, "we didn't feel claustrophobic spending this much time together" because it was so similar to their travels. "We travel, we wake up, we climb a mountain together, we climb back from the mountain, make dinner together—we always were spending this much time together 24/7."
Ponova proposed during a weekend in the Catskills with friends (the first time the pair had left New York City since March!). "We were sitting around the fire and then everybody went to sleep," she describes. "We were still [sitting at the fire] because of these beautiful fireflies. The coils of the fire were still glimmering and Stefan proposed to me and it felt like the most natural thing."
And with that their wedding date was set for exactly one month later: July 26. But like most of today, the recently-engaged pair were planning a private ceremony (they'll celebrate with family and friends later). However, the hardest question was where the two should say 'I do.'"If we were somewhere in South America still we would have just [wed on a] mountain summit, but in New York, we were thinking, 'What can be symbolic and what can be beautiful?'" The Brooklyn Bridge at sunset proved to be the perfect choice.
She says, "It was nice and symbolic to walk from one side of the bridge together and then get married in the middle and then cross to the other side holding hands and already married."