Photographing the DC Shorts Film Festival

I was a Photo Coordinator for the DC Shorts Film Festival, responsible capturing images of the event and managing the work of twenty volunteer photographers. DC Shorts is a ten-day long festival of short film that takes places annually in Washington, DC.

You probably think that photographing a film festival is a lot like this:

Filmmakers at 2012 Grand Bash
Filmmakers at 2012 Grand Bash | photo by Joe Flood

Lots of pictures of pretty people enjoying themselves in a glamorous setting. Which it was. But behind the scenes it was:

bag of a photo coordinator
Bag of a Photo Coordinator | photo by Joe Flood

That’s the bag I lugged around for the festival, containing my Canon T2i, a 430ex flash and a diffuser. But more importantly – a festival program, a spreadsheet showing when and where volunteer photogs were supposed to be and t-shirts and nametags for volunteers.

Being a Photo Coordinator is less about taking photos and more about volunteer wrangling, i.e., making sure that we had photogs covering each event, that they had their t-shirts (they only got them upon showing up), that the DC Shorts backdrop was set up properly (more trouble than you’d think) and that the photogs were getting pictures of the stuff we needed (people having fun and goods we’d received from sponsors).

Fortunately, I had some great photographers to work with – Hadley Fielding, Sarah King, Milind Raj, Sami Shash, Tamara Blair, Eva Moolchan, Greg Lawler and many more. Here’s just a sample of their work.

Thursday: Filmmaker/VIP Party

September 6 was opening night for us, a VIP party for filmmakers at the Gibson Guitar Room. With guitars hanging from the walls and a deck overlooking the Verizon Center, it’s one of the coolest private venues in the city.

guitars on the wall
Guitars | photo by Sarah King
Gibson Guitar deck
Gibson Guitar deck | photo by Sarah King
volunteers | photo by Milind Raj

From the marketing perspective, we needed shots of people enjoying stuff provided by sponsors. Without them, DC Shorts wouldn’t happen. So a picture like this is invaluable:

Charlie with Izze soda
Charlie with Izze soda | photo by Sami Shash

Film Screenings

The next day, the film festival began in earnest, with screenings of short films followed by Q&As with filmmakers. It’s tough to get a good shot of someone at the front of a dark theater with a shiny screen behind them. But this is an important moment for filmmakers, when they share their creation with the world.

Filmmaker Kati Mahalic, The Vacuum Kid | Tamara Blair
Filmmaker Kati Mahalic, The Vacuum Kid | photo by Tamara Blair
Q&A at the Navy Memorial Theater
Q&A at the Navy Memorial Theater | photo by Sami Shash

Food Pairings

Each year, festival director Jon Gann tries something new. This year, it was food and drink pairings after select screenings, where local chefs created a special treat tied to a film in the festival.

Akavit tasting after Showcase 11
Akavit tasting after Showcase 11 | photo by Joe Flood
lamb crostini
Crostini with Lamb Tartare by Ed Witt | photo by Joe Flood
Executive chef Ed Witt of 701
Executive chef Ed Witt of 701 | photo by Joe Flood

Friday: City View Party

Friday night was the best party of the festival, the City View party on the roof of Carroll Square. Fifteen minutes before the party – chaos. Arguments over cheese, volunteers mixing drinks and me dragging a planter across the roof to prevent our photo backdrop from blowing away in the stiff breeze. But then, as if by magic, everything came into place as the doors opened.

Carroll Square | Joe Flood
Carroll Square | photo by Joe Flood
volunteers mixing up drinks
this is why you're hungover | photo by Joe Flood
partygoers | photo by Sarah King
rockstar pose
rockstar pose | photo by Eva Moolchan

Filmmaking Workshops

DC Shorts also featured a day of free workshops on filmmaking, featuring such experts as Kelley Baker, the angry filmmaker (who is actually very nice and incredibly knowledgeable about low-budget filmmaking.)

filmmakers enjoy a lecture
filmmakers enjoy a lecture | photo by Joe Flood
angry filmmaker
angry filmmaker | photo by Joe Flood

Jon Gann also debuted his book, Behind the Screens, a guide to getting your short film into festivals.

Steven Degennaro and Jon Gann
Steven Degennaro and Jon Gann | photo by Joe Flood

Saturday: The Grand Bash

Saturday night was the Grand Bash, a massive party at the Navy Memorial. The threat of rain forced the festivities inside but it was still a huge success. Sami Shash was tireless at this event, taking countless photos of partygoers in front of the DC Shorts backdrop.

Interesting, the psychology of it – put up a nice-looking backdrop, have a photog there with a big flash and people line up to have their picture taken. Especially after they’ve had a few drinks.

Biggest challenge: making sure drunk people didn’t fall through our backdrop.

posing | photo by Sami Shash
Graham George | photo by Sami Shash

Greg Lawler had the brilliant idea to bring his wife along as photo assistant. She captured names on an iPad while he took photos. They got the most detailed captions of all of the photogs.

"Barney and the Martians" filmmakers Adam and Justin Schwartz with DC Shorts executive director Jon Gann | Greg Lawler
"Barney and the Martians" filmmakers Adam and Justin Schwartz with DC Shorts executive director Jon Gann | photo by Greg Lawler
Evan Littman , Kati Mahalic, Rocco Cataldo, Mike Kwielford, Laura Brodie, Mu Sun, Brett Kramer, Genevieve Farrell, Mary Kay Cook
Evan Littman , Kati Mahalic, Rocco Cataldo, Mike Kwielford, Laura Brodie, Mu Sun, Brett Kramer, Genevieve Farrell, Mary Kay Cook | photo by Greg Lawler

Sunday: Awards Brunch

The Awards Brunch at Clyde’s is my favorite part of the festival. There’s lots of bacon, prizes are handed out and it’s incredibly chill.

Golden Pineapple and DC Shorts awards
Whole Foods Golden Pineapple and DC Shorts awards | photo by Joe Flood
Steven DeGennaro and Jon Gann
Steven DeGennaro (Outstanding First-Time Director) and Jon Gann | photo by Joe Flood
brunch | photo by Sarah King

Screenplay Competition

In addition to being a photographer, I’m a judge with the DC Shorts Screenplay Competition. It’s a great competition – the winner gets $2000 to turn their short script into a film and they automatically get into the following year’s film festival.

We selected five finalists and they read their scripts aloud with actors before an audience at the Atlas Theater who decided the winner.

writers casting
screenwriters Heidi Willis, Chris Svehla, Craig Charter and Peter Kimball | photo by Joe Flood
live reading
live reading
Peter Kimball and cast of Shenanigans
Peter Kimball (center, winner of screenplay competition) and cast of Shenanigans

Closing Bash

One more party! There was a final Closing Bash at the Atlas Theater on H St. My co-coordinator Hadley Fielding was there to wrangle the photogs. Looks like there was a lot of delicious Kerrygold cheese.

closing bash
closing bash
Kerrygold cheese
Kerrygold cheese
Grand Bash | Greg Lawler
Grand Bash | photo by Greg Lawler


In this post, you see just a tiny fraction of the hundreds of photos that were shot during DC Shorts. Here are some of the people behind the photos.

Ashley Thomas | Sarah King
Ashley Thomas | photo by Sarah King
Milind Raj and Hadley Fielding
Milind Raj and Hadley Fielding | photo by Greg Lawler
Sami Shash
Sami Shash (left) | photo by Sami Shash
me, Theresa Hilsdon and Jon Gann
me, Theresa Hilsdon and Jon Gann | photo by Sami Shash

Next Year

Photos from DC Shorts have to serve a lot of different masters. Media outlets need party photos with everyone captioned in them (something we had a hard time doing). Sponsors like to see pictures of people enjoying the food and drink they’ve provided. The festival needs shots showing large crowds and happy filmmakers. Filmmakers want pictures of themselves on a red carpet. Partygoers desire glamorous shots for Facebook pages. You need a mix of event coverage, food photography, candid shots and editorial work.

How do you do this?

I’d suggest pairing photogs with photo assistants, to get names and details from the people photographed. And I’d recruit people based upon their specialty – candids, food shots, posed pictures in front of a backdrop. And I’d tell them to cover the festival, doing what they do best, whether that’s an editorial style or a high fashion one.

Instagram – that was one thing that I wished we did more of. Having a couple of iPhoneographers covering DC Shorts would be a way to promote the festival in real-time and do some interesting work.

But that’s all for next year. In the meantime, enjoy the pictures.

Author: Joe Flood

Joe Flood is a writer, photographer and web person from Washington, DC. The author of several novels, Joe won the City Paper Fiction Competition in 2020. In his free time, he enjoys wandering about the city taking photos.

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