Freelance photographer Laura Thompson discusses how photos from a self-assigned news story paved the way to her first New York Times byline.
In a now-deleted social media post, a Nashville hat store cheerfully advertised the sale of its new stick-on patches—yellow patches that resemble the Star of David, emblazoned with the words “NOT VACCINATED.” The photo posted by HatWRKs shows the owner Gigi Gaskins wearing the anti-vaccine patch, which closely resembles those forced on Jews by Nazi Germany.
Inevitably, the post sparked widespread condemnation and outrage online—and caught the attention of Shutterstock contributor Laura Thompson. A seasoned commercial and editorial photographer, Thompson closely monitored the story as it developed, anticipating that the story could turn at any moment.
The offensive post was shared amid a rise in anti-Semitic attacks and echoed inflammatory statements made by U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who repeatedly compared mask and vaccine mandates to the Holocaust. On one such occasion, Greene tweeted: “Vaccinated employees get a vaccination logo just like the Nazi’s [sic] forced Jewish people to wear a gold star.” Her tweet was in response to a grocery store chain that allowed inoculated employees to go maskless while wearing vaccination logos on their name tags. It was only a matter of time before Greene’s shameful rhetoric found a commercial grift to go with it, followed by subsequent outrage.
When protests erupted outside the hat store—chanting “No Nazis in Nashville” and “sell hats, not hate”—Thompson was prepared at the scene, capturing the demonstration as it unfolded from behind the lens. In a true case of “preparation meets opportunity,” Thompson amplified the story to a national level, landing her first New York Times byline through images distributed via Shutterstock.
We spoke to the photographer to discuss the story behind the photo and any insight she could share that led to her first New York Times byline.
An Interview with Laura Thompson
Shutterstock: Thank you for speaking with us today. And, congratulations on placing your first New York Times byline! Before we launch into questions about this exciting new career milestone, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Laura Thompson: I like to say I’m a pretty balanced mix of my parents. My dad was a school portrait photographer, and my mom worked in a TV station while I was growing up in Roanoke, Virginia. I fell in love with photography at an early age, and my dad would work with me on photo projects for school all the time. I moved to New York City for college, worked for photo agencies and news outlets—both in the office and as a photographer—and moved down to Nashville, Tennessee in the fall of 2020.
SSTK: So, a career in photography and journalism certainly runs in the family. Can you give us an overview of where your career as a photographer has taken you?
LT: I had my first professional opportunities as a photographer while working for Retna, an agency mostly known for its rock music archive and celebrity events coverage. I learned how to photograph red carpets and concerts while also learning how the back end of a photo agency works, and how photos get from photographer to publication. I moved to the New York Daily News as a photo editor, and would photograph portraits every now and then and contribute photos to stories happening in my neighborhood. All the while, I worked with freelance clients, agencies, and trade shows in the evenings after my daytime shift at the office. After a layoff from my Daily News job, I decided to remain a freelancer and focus on building my own studio photography business.
I spent the spring of 2020 in Roanoke, Virginia, focused on photographing the communities that came together to support each other throughout the pandemic. Now that I live in Nashville and I’ve been vaccinated against the coronavirus, I feel comfortable expanding my coverage on the same topics here and get back into covering news in my new city.
SSTK: A perfect example of a community coming together is depicted in your latest photos—protests in response to the controversial HatWRKS’ “Not Vaccinated” Star of David patch. How did you first come to learn of this controversy and subsequent backlash?
LT: The first time I saw something about it was on Instagram. Later that night, I noticed that it had picked up some national news interest via Twitter. When I woke up Saturday morning, I texted my editor at Shutterstock, and we started brainstorming ways to cover the story. About twenty minutes later, I saw that a protest was starting at 10 am, about half an hour later at that point, and that made the decision for me.
SSTK: As a photographer, what was it about this particular story that you found compelling enough to pursue?
LT: Building off my projects last year about communities in small towns, I wanted to start covering more community news in Nashville—from those standing outside to those honking their car horns in support passing by. It was nice to see so many people coming together for the Jewish community in Nashville. There has been a rise in anti-Semitic threats and violence, and so much misinformation about vaccines in the last few months—this felt like a good time to help amplify the message that hate won’t be tolerated in Nashville.
SSTK: And, what an important message that is. What would you say you generally look for when identifying an opportunity to tell a great visual story?
LT: I think great visual stories happen when there’s passion involved. I produce my best work when I’m passionate about my subject matter and the people involved are passionate about their cause.
SSTK: Emotions must have been running high at the protest. As a photographer, what were some of the things you considered prior to covering such an emotionally-charged and potentially volatile event?
LT: There were a lot of what-ifs to consider. What if the owner showed up? What if there was a counter-protest in support of the store? Instead, the owner never showed up, and there were minimal counter-protesters. It was really a day of support, community, and education. A few people showed up to agitate and left with their opinions changed, which was cool to watch play out in front of me.
SSTK: What would you say were some of the challenges while on assignment?
LT: There are only so many ways to photograph people in front of a building. I started my day there at 10 am, photographed for about an hour, and submitted my first round of images from a Starbucks. I went back to the protest at 2 pm to make sure my edit had enough variety for Shutterstock to be able to place.
SSTK: Clearly, your hard work paid off. What does being published in The New York Times mean to you?
LT: Whenever I see coverage of an event place that I’ve self-assigned, it just reinforces that my gut instincts were correct. It also reinforces that visuals help amplify a story, and the available resources linking freelancers and the national media are an important part of that process.
SSTK: Finally, what advice do you have for photographers who would like to get their work published—even in The New York Times—via stock agencies?
LT: I think a lot of it has to do with anticipating the right photo that will tell the whole story of the day in one photo. In this case, I knew the photos that would place (anywhere) would be ones that showed the building signage clearly, and pulled back to set the scene. You never know what stories will make it into the day’s news cycle, but it helps to submit your photos on-the-go or midway through an event you’re working on. If your photos are close to first on the media grid, you have a higher likelihood of seeing placements through stock agencies.
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Cover image via Laura Thompson/?Shutterstock.
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