UPAA Blog 2020-21 #30- 6/30/21 (text by Megan Bean, photo above: Matt Stamey photographed his viewing --and coffee making--setup in his Stanta Fe College office)

Megan Bean is Public Affairs photographer at Mississippi State University.

Like many of you, I was unable to be fully present at this year’s Symposium.  I hadn’t had a chance to officially ask my employer (or my colleague, Beth Newman Wynn) for their grace and approval in my taking the time to attend. But in the middle of my family’s two week road trip across the West, I’d seen the Facebook nudge about the impending enrollment deadline and promptly put down my personal credit card and reserved my spot.

Because if you ever CAN attend an annual UPAA Symposium, trust me:  You SHOULD.

Work vs. Symposium Zoom:

This means that while I was streaming the conference at my desk, I was also in the midst of a swirl of work: processing photos, answering emails, dashing off to assignments, responding to workmates’ questions, receiving a surprise magazine cover assignment involving a trip to Delaware, and thinking about how best to plan for the arrival and training of our incoming new third photographer, Robby Lozano (we can’t wait to get him into UPAA and introduce him to you all).  In short, my week was hectic, and my attendance circumstances were hardly ideal. 

(photo by Sarah Ritter)  Rachael Keating watches the BYU lighting presentation from Western Illinois University."We made ourselves comfy in our studio," said Western Illinois photographer Sarah Ritter.  

We – Are – Family:

But if anyone could relate to my struggles, it would be this group of attendees. Because - as came up repeatedly during the conference stream - the UPAA Symposium is the very best sort of family reunion.

Any Symposium attendee can attest that the lectures and access to vendors and gear are lovely perks to in-person attendance, but the real Symposium value comes from the connection with our fellow Swiss Army Knife photographers, for university photographers face a spectrum of challenges and craziness that feels particular to our field.  Attending a Symposium is a most effective way to hit the refresh button, solve a nitty-gritty technical problem, unleash pent up creativity, or have a bit of a group therapy session.

Whereas 2020’s first virtual Symposium arrived while the post-Covid world was still uncharted and raw, by June 2021, everyone was suffering from well over a year of varying degrees of pandemic challenges and Zoom fatigue. It’s been a long year for each of us, and although at first glance UPAA does not appear to have lost any members physically to Covid, the pandemic’s effects on our ranks are undeniable. The retirements and job shifts amongst our membership have left their mark, and we have all felt the stress that may have accelerated some of those announcements. There’s no doubt things still aren’t “normal” and yet somehow, through the sheer will power and service of UPAA’s leadership and volunteers, the annual Symposium was conjured up again out of - and through - thin air.

Kudos, Acknowledgements & Service:

So many of us leave UPAA Symposiums marveling at the breadth and depth of professional knowledge represented by attendees, the generosity of the members in sharing their knowledge (no hoarding here!), and the grassroots volunteer service of the board and core UPAA members.  Thank you.  No really, THANK YOU.

Here are just a few highlights:

Steven Bridges rightfully and unsurprisingly swept both the Monthly Image Competition and Annual Photo Competition and was named the Mark A. Philbrick Photographer of the Year for the second consecutive year.  We all got to witness the celebratory joy of last year’s POY announcement when Steven’s home office was invaded by his kids splattering him with congratulatory silly string and confetti. This year, Steven remarked on just how much the contest itself still motivates him to get out and shoot. Even the best of us can find inspiration in UPAA. For many of us, the point of competing is not to win; it's an added incentive to create at a higher level, prompted by our peers.

Steven Bridges toasts his 2nd POY win with ice water in his UT office.

Nikon Shootout 2021

When the Nikon Shootout slideshow played, I had the true pleasure of seeing everyone else’s entries unveiled. I wish we could have unmuted our mikes for the viewing, for we probably would have heard audible gasps, oohs, and giggles at all our responses to the flower prompts. What sheer joy to see what can be produced when an array of creative talent is unleashed on their respective environments with a limited amount of time and with only the resources they can conjure up on short notice.  During the slideshow of Shootout images, the chat board echoed with calls for a printing of coffee table books and calendars.

Nikon Shootout entries from Stephanie Douglas, Samford University, left, and Lauren Castellana, Towson Universty

The photo bar was exceedingly high, so special congrats to Matt Stamey (Sante Fe College) for winning the generous and coveted Nikon camera prize with his evocative image.  Matt’s lonely floating flower was buffeted by the movements of the surrounding dark silver water. Whether or not he intended it to do so, that one image could visually sum up the isolating experience of our pandemic year. That he captured the photo at home, within the reflective confines of his dog’s water bowl, serves as further evidence of the work of a UPAA magician.

Matt Stamey of Santa Fe College (Florida) won a Nikon Z6II kit with this image of a flower in his dog's water dish during a rain shower.


Speaking of prizes, our sponsor’s door prizes this year were incredibly generous.  With each announcement of Amanda Pitts’ randomly drawing the name of a member of the virtual audience, I’m sure I was not alone in holding my breath and crossing my fingers to win. What a remarkable array of rewards. Some lucky folks walked away with camera kits just for attending a keynote, which had already been enough compensation in its own right.  I found I was fortunate to be the winner of $50 while in a sponsor’s breakout room (that alone paid for my Symposium entrance fee, and left me with a profit) as well as winning a Think Tank Retrospective Bag in another session. Wow! We are all in awe of the generosity of our sponsors and the hard work of Amanda in procuring and distributing the collection of prizes.

UPAA Board Changes

Two board seats were open this year, and a number of valued UPAA members stepped up to the plate to offer their time & talents in filling the vacancies.  We all applaud and thank the newly elected board members Lyndsie Schlink (Illinois State University) and Jason Halley (California State University, Chico) and hope that UPAA finds ways to employ the volunteer spirit of the other members who announced themselves as willing to throw their time and expertise into the organization at the highest level of service. 

No amount of allotted time would have been enough to sing the praises of the two departing board members, Ken Bennett and Jeff Gage.  Everyone agreed that Jeff could win an award for being the kindest and most welcoming member of the UPAA family, and Jeff had been so perfectly suited to his role of Membership Chair. Many chimed in to attest that Ken has a knack for giving a rather intimidating initial impression but rewards those daring enough to approach with genuine friendship and an incredible breadth of career knowledge.  Ken has been an invaluable strength on the board for so long, it’s hard to imagine the board without him. Words fail. We are so very grateful to you both.

The Meat of the Conference: Keynotes and Trade Show

Owing to my workplace interruptions, I don’t think I got to see a single talk in its entirety, with the exception of BYU’s “One Light Workshop,” which was perfectly executed, of course. As always, BYU generously shared their deep knowledge while simultaneously demonstrating how to produce a complicated three camera live stream (with Jaren Wilkey pausing his Hawaii family vacation to moderate remotely).  Especial thanks to Nate Edwards for letting us witness his skill and gentle rapport with his colleagues and subjects. (And finally I think I get the origin of “butterfly” light...)

It's the UPAA blog editor's opinion that Nate Edwards gave the simplest, best, and most understandable demonstration of the inverse square law I've ever seen.

Thank goodness the talks were recorded and that UPAA plans to allow us an opportunity to view them on demand. (Modern technology for the win!) What with so many breakout rooms available simultaneously – just like at an in-person conference – attendees had to wrestle with their own FOMO and attempt to customize the experience to their own interests and needs.

(photo by Matt Stamey) Lynsey Weatherspoon's presentation.

Everyone in the chat room seemed especially moved by the talks of Lynsey Weatherspoon, Robin Layton, and Cristina Mittermier.  In a year when so many of us have had the time and cause to contemplate the "whys" and meanings of our lives, each spoke directly to the deeper motivations behind the act of lifting a camera to one’s eye and touching the shutter.  Why go to work each day? Why do what we do?

I observed certain threads weaving through their talks. In a career where many gearheads can use the technical aspects of photography as a protective armor against the deep stuff, these speakers cut straight through to the vulnerable souls of the photographer and subject, and the potential for a genuine connection between the two.

A few of my favorite quotes and observations from the swirl of the day:

  • Lynsey Weatherspoon urged us to intertwine our connection to the moment and the person, focusing on empathy and listening.  She urges us to make the subjects feel special, beautiful, SEEN for who they are. Likewise, if we’re doing our jobs as photographers, we should feel things during our photoshoots, both in our mind and our bodies. Our job is to acknowledge those responses, and to take the time to BREATHE.
  • “Just be present with what you’re doing so that you can enjoy it.” – Cristina Mittermeier
  • Watching Cristina Mittermeier’s talk, Glenn Carpenter observed: “It is good to be reminded that photography has power.”
  • Photographers “have to be comfortable in our own company.” – Cristina Mittermeier

Is it possible to make our photo subjects feel as comfortable with us as the sharks do with Cristina Mittermeier?

In the vein of Lynsey Weatherspoon, how can we tell the genuine stories of the individuals we depict on behalf of our universities?  How can we help them to be not mere models in front of our camera, but collaborators?

Following Cristina Mittermeier, if the images are strong enough, can their power be harnessed to inspire action (even if that action is only to engage, enroll, or donate money to our respective campus)? 

And if your own day job work cannot provide you with the meaning you seek, can you use the inspiration of personal projects (see Robin Layton) to keep your soul afloat when the job doesn’t provide the needed nourishment?

UPAA is not afraid to bring in the speakers who ask the tough questions and nudge each of us to take our images beyond the superficial.

Kudos to the Chat:

The lively chat room banter in the sidebar of the day’s Zoom stream had the potential to bring a key element of engagement to the Symposium and particularly to the talks.  In addition to the ease of sending questions to the moderator, the chat allowed us to have a collective reaction, rallying the crowd. Unlike a live lecture, where you might only dare whisper or nudge your direct neighbors when something of significance arose, through the chat room, we could toss private notes across the room to specific people or end up in a public dialogue with a fellow member that we hadn’t yet had the chance to meet, all while responding to the lecture before us.  If you find that the chat ever gets too distracting from the talk, it’s easy to tune out or completely hide from your screen.  Through the chat bar, the virtual lectures became more of a shared experience, approximating the laughter and collective sighs and applause we could have shared in person.

Virtual Hospitality Breakout Rooms

After a full and intense day at an in-person Symposium, it can take a real rallying effort to make it to an evening hospitality room.  But we all know that’s where some of the most meaningful conversations can be found. 

Similarly, weighed down by Zoom fatigue after many hours in the virtual Symposium, it wasn’t easy to find the energy to see what conversations might be sought out in the breakout rooms.  There were rewards to be had by randomly bouncing around the rooms, or - better yet - turning Ken Bennett’s central control hub into an alternate chat room. But I’m sure we can all agree that these virtual hospitality rooms were just no comparison to the real thing. Turn-taking is more difficult and it’s impossible to draw someone aside for a smaller group chat or a one-to-one. With luck (knock on all the wood), we’ll never again have to forego the option of an in-person Symposium.

One Year Till UGA

(photo by Andy Tucker) The 2022 UPAA Symposium will be held "between the hedges" at the University of Georgia

Countdown to next year’s in person Symposium, which was announced with the requisite fanfare to be hosted in Athens by the generous folks at the University of Georgia on June 20-24, 2022, delayed a Pandemic year from UGA’s initial plans.

For those who wonder if it’s worthwhile to make the journey in person, just do it.  No matter who is on the speaker roster, you’ll find that the real gems will be found in your fellow attendees.

Bring on 2022! UP – AA!


This is the final UPAA blog of 2020-21. It would be lovely to have a pile of submissions and suggestions when the blog re-starts in September, so please send 'em to mcashore@nd.edu.