The Shutdown Stories Project: a photographic essay of 21 people affected by the longest government shutdown in U.S. history


The Shutdown Stories Project is a photographic essay of 21 people (21 of 800,000 workers) affected by the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. The photos were taken with Nikon D850 and 85mm f/1.8 lens.

How the Shutdown Stories Project Unfolded

The portraits you see in this post are from a larger photographic essay of 21 real people – 21 of 800,000 government employees – affected by the longest Government Shutdown in U.S. history. These photographs were created for The Shutdown Story Project.

We are both professional photographers in the Washington, DC area, and after attending a protest, we wanted to do something about the shutdown. Regardless of which side of the political aisle you sit on, it’s safe to say that federal workers have become unwilling pawns in the Shutdown.

Perhaps most dehumanizing is the way the media and certain politicians relegate these great individuals as a blind number, “800,000 federal workers.” Or worse. We only know them as our family members, friends, neighbors and members of our communities.

So we put out a call to affected federal workers in our areas to schedule a photoshoot on the afternoon of Wednesday, January 16 at the Creative Hands Studio in Washington, DC. All parties involved -- including the two of us, the studio, and several other photographers and PAs -- donated their time and resources to make this happen.

The Shoot and Edit

We had 21 people to photograph in roughly three hours (with an hour break at one point). So each person had approximately 15 minutes of camera time.

To achieve an almost identical look despite two very different styles – Kirth focuses on headshots and weddings, while Geoff offers event photography and photojournalism services – we set up two photo stations and shot with identical equipment. Each station had was set up with grey seamless, a singular Alien Bee strobe light and a large Octabox camera right. A reflector was used to provide a bit of fill on the left.

We both shot with our respective D850s paired with Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G lenses. Because we know it’s going to come up in the comments, both of us have shot with the Nikkor f1.4G sister lens and didn’t feel the significant increase in price for a slightly faster lens was worth it. Neither of us loves the popular Sigma Art 85mm/14 lens either. The more economic 85mm/1.8 was perfect for this project. We both shot tethered to Capture One to allow for quick image selection and review.

Since each of our subjects selected their image immediately after their session, we knew exactly what was in store for as far as post-processing was concerned.  That evening, we had a quick joint editing session where we applied some basic corrections and cropping and then we sent the images off to our post-processing team on Thursday Morning. We received the finished images on Friday morning. By late Friday afternoon, each participant had received their photograph, and The Shutdown Project website was live.

Why the Smiles

So why the smiles and overall pleasant demeanor? When we started this project, our goal was to humanize those affected by the shutdown in the region. We had seen enough distraught federal worker shutdown stories portrayed on cable news networks and felt they were over-dramatized and not indicative of the community members we know that have been affected by the shutdown.

Further, the affected federal workers wanted to use the photographs for their purposes. We thought utility was important. For example, if one of the subjects chooses to use the image as their LinkedIn profile picture and gets a new job, we think that’s a win.

Each shoot included roughly 20-35 takes and each subject then selected the image they liked best. We felt it was a fair trade.

Based on the initial responses from the DC region and our communities, we were successful in making the subjects feel appreciated. They are just like any of us, they're our neighbors, our friends, our family members, and our coworkers. The 21 people we had the pleasure of photographing enthusiastically serve our great nation, and they're all looking forward to returning to work.

We want to thank everyone who supported the Shutdown Stories Project.  The real heroes are the federal employees who had the courage to have their photo taken and share their story. Remember, they are just 21 people -- 21 of 800,000 -- directly affected by this senseless and completely unnecessary political drama.

Alicia Pelton is a State Department employee. To avoid spending money, Alicia is staying home a lot more. She says she’s stressed out, trying to think of ways to earn some money on the side. She has already taken a loan out against her retirement.

Brian Ottens works at NASA (we loved his telescope as a prop!). While the Shutdown continues, he jogs with neighbors every morning after they get their kids to school. They share stories of how to make it without ruining their credit. Some examples include how to file for unemployment in DC and MD, whose credit union will allow a delay in the car payment, and who picked up a side hustle.

Jason Schlosberg works at the Department of Transportation. He says the Shutdown has increased his personal stress, and caused him to seek forgiveness from creditors. He is spending more time at home on house projects and with his kids.

Lona Saccomando serves the country at the Department of Homeland Security. Her family is down to one income and is depleting their savings. Luckily, they have enough for now. Lona sees a silver lining in that she enjoys time with her children and is getting more serious about her personal photography goals during the shutdown.

Mel Harper works at the National Gallery of Art. She is a mother and needs each and every one of her paychecks to pay bills. She will likely be late for her February mortgage payment. Mel was piloting a new project to invite DC area artists to the National Gallery. That program will have to be postponed because of the Shutdown, possibly until next year.

Nathan Scarlett works at the U.S. Census Bureau. Rather than looking at the downside, Nathan thinks the ability to spend more time with his family is the biggest impact on his personal life.

Patrice Wilson works at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. She is taking the Shutdown as a silver lining, forcing her to consider how she manages money as she approaches her retirement in six years. Patrice has two grown children and two grandchildren that frequent her house, and she considers them pseudo dependents. Patrice started a popular Facebook group for furloughed federal workers to share resources and to comfort one another.

Pei Hamsik works at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. She and her husband are both furloughed federal government workers so neither of them is receiving an income. They have two young children.

Sara Devlin is a Foreign Service Officer at the State Department. She says she is lucky that her spouse managed to find a job quickly after her July 2018 transfer to DC. He is currently still working and receiving a paycheck. In January she started her own #BrightSideProject 2019 to try to focus on the positives of every day. Getting time consuming and dull tasks done has been a true “Bright Side” of the Shutdown for Sara.

Sarah Munshi works at the State Department and was studying Japanese at the Foreign Service Institute when the Shutdown began. Both she and her husband work at State and have had their incomes impacted by the Shutdown. Sarah said that while they are financially vulnerable during this time, she is grateful every day for the privileges we have.

About the Authors

Kirth Bobb (https://www.kirthbobb.com) is an award-winning Washington DC photographer mostly known for his wedding photography, headshots and portraiture. His work has been featured in several publications including Rangefinder Magazine, Huffington Post, Ebony Magazine, and his street and fine art photographs have been exhibited in several galleries around the Washington DC area and internationally. Kirth Bobb also serves as the festival coordinator for Focus on the Story (http://focusonthestory.org).

Geoff Livingston (https://geofflivingston.com) is an award-winning professional photographer in the Washington, DC Area. He provides event photography, photojournalism, portraits, engagement shoots, and fine art photography.  His work has been published in Petapixel, National Geographic, the Huffington Post, and Digital Photography School. His corporate experiences include Audi USA, Bank of America, the National Park Foundation, the National Park Service, Pearson Education, and USA Today.

Kirth and Geoff met while serving on the board of clickDC.

If you have an interesting idea for a guest post, you can contact me here.

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