Story and Photos by Johnny Bivera

It was two years ago on the month of March we held the last shoot off program for still photography. We finished our program the day before the whole region shut down for Covid-19. It was on a Monday and the week prior was the most stressed out I had been since 911. An unknown future was coming and phone calls between myself, the staff, the sponsors and venue management was hourly. The spread was coming fast and the seriousness of how to react was muddled. Two days out from the workshop a decision was made between myself and program director Bob Houlihan to keep our senior citizen faculty members away and home safe. This did not go over well with Chip Maury, a founding faculty member and honored icon to many workshops. We couldn’t risk him traveling from Boston to DC and back no matter how much he tried to persuade us that he was going to be fine. Fortunately, his commander in chief at home Judy, made that call for us and I was spared the Navy Chief’s admonishment.  

Bob and I then made the decision the morning of the workshop at zero dark early to keep our local students at home and online, while allowing faculty and participants who flew in from out of town to be part of the reduced onsite foot print at the Dave and Busters meeting rooms. It was the most surreal workshop I had ever participated in. Here we were, unmasked as it was not yet social protocol to do so but damn if I didn’t have jars of hand sanitizers around within reaching distance. While that workshop caused much tension, the team practiced what all of us had been trained to do in all our time in service, to stand fast, be professional and keep your wits about. We persevered and made the 15th DC Shoot Off Workshop a success despite everything.

And now in 2023, as if from a long Rip Van Winkle nap or repeating ground hog day we rose from slumber, with a drive to reach out and claim our time once again, to shake hands, hug and look each other in the eye and say, let’s do this! 

The 16th Annual DC Shoot Off Photojournalism Workshop concludes after the judging of images depicting the theme CHARM, conducted at Dave & Busters in Arundel Mills, Maryland on March 25, 2023. Photo by Johnny Bivera

We had two months on what we normally spend half a year of preparing to get it all together. We reached out to our premiere sponsor Canon and they jumped on board. We reached out to our community and they were eager and ready, it was all a matter of going down the list of must do’s. This would make the 16th year the program has been in existence, brought on by a need to provide something for our service members, something that’s their own, self-supported and not part of any red tape, this that allows us to turn on a dime, to adapt and visualize where we are and what we need to do today. We all have worked or work in the service industry, service to country, our families, and our brothers and sisters in arms. That part of who we are never leaves us, it is why this program works, everyone is a volunteer.

So this year was logistically set and programmed just like the last one, why fix what’s not broken? And we had a great first evening meeting old friends and making new ones, and provided portfolio reviews and career counseling to many young photographers. The next day was a full one, Brien Aho introduced a great lineup of presenters starting with legacy military photographers who made great careers and built an unbelievable body of work. I want to thank Navy veterans Kurt Lengfield, Erika Barker and Mark Kettenhofen for teaching and sharing, that success as a photographer after the military is highly possible. This day only got better as our first civilian guest is a young female photojournalist named Svet Jacqueline whom I met while working on a special book project called Relentless Courage, Ukraine and the World at War. As I had the honor of being the photo exhibit manager of the books launch at Ukraine House in Washington, D.C., Svet was one of five photo essayists featured in collaboration with photojournalists who documented the invasion and humanitarian crisis still happening in Ukraine today. Her images titled Children on Wars Playground, was telling, emotional and real. It was a great presentation. The final presenter is an iconic 30-year veteran staff photographer for National Geographic and dear friend, the only photographer I know whose image now journeys beyond the solar system on board NASA’s Voyager Spacecraft. His presentation not only went back in time but he shared current projects like returning to find people he photographed for an assignment on Gypsies 53 years ago. He found them or their surviving families, and here he captured again their lives but this time on video as well, sharing their stories from the time Dale first started to take their picture to how their lives currently are. There was a lot to learn from his life as a photographer but also from the people whose lives he documented. 

As the keynote speaker Dale had the honor of pulling a one-word subject written on a piece of paper out of a hat, which would be the theme or photo story subject the students would have to go out and produce into a 3 to 5 image picture story. This is when the workshop gets energized, as they are provided a volunteer editor and mentor to help them with their story concept and production. They’ll have 24 hours to deadline and for this year’s picked theme was “Charm”. Most subjects that are picked sound easy at first, but then once you get a moment to think about it, coming up with those images in creating a story suddenly becomes a challenge.

So 24 hours later the images are turned in and accessioned by Shane McCoy, as he reads out the rules to this year’s three great judges, civilian and career photo editor Linda Epstein, Marine Corps combat veteran and recent Pulitzer Prize recipient Samuel Corum and the Navy’s own Jim Preston, currently with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, he was a former photojournalist with the Blue Angels and All Hands Magazine and a 1982 Military Photographer of the Year recipient. Their feedback combined at this workshop has so far been the best in shoot off history. 

This year’s winners are as listed; Naval reservist Mass Communications Specialist Senior Chief Gina Danals was awarded the Chip Shot in honor of Chip Maury, the category for best overall single image. The Egnor Cup named in memory of Russ Egnor, the category for those that have attended the advanced military photojournalism workshop or a past Hackman Challenge winner went to Air Force veteran Bennie Davis III. There is also our category for our online competitors who this year went to Navy veteran Eric Clement, who competed from Texas. This category was also great for one of our participants who used this moment to bond with his grandkids by incorporating them into his photo shoot, while his fun images didn’t make it to the winners circle, retired Navy Cmdr. Toby Marquez was able to bring the joy of photography to his future legacy.  The final category reserved for our new and advancing photographers called the Hackman Challenge in honor of Ken Hackman, went to Mass Communications Specialist First Class Carlos Vasquez II. 

So what a wonderful list of winners and Bravo Zulu to participants who traveled all the way from Seattle, Charlotte and Brooklyn to name a few. And special shout out from our friends online who participated from Japan, France and all across the nation. Thank you staff and faculty everywhere. Thank you Canon, Visual Media One, Pro Photo DC, White House News Photographers Association, the National Press Photographers Association and to you, the membership of the National Association of Naval Photography…you guys rock! Happy shooting!

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