Luck plays a big role in getting just the right photograph

Music on Locust Street in downtown Floyd on a Friday night. This was a "grab shot" as I was leaving the Jamboree.
The beauty and music of Martha Spencer of the Whitetop Mountain Band.
(All photos by Doug Thompson)

Those of us who pursue a career as a news photographer depend, primarily, on luck.

Talent helps, a lot, but the luck of being at the right place at the right time is what makes the difference between a snapshot or an image that captures the attention of a reader and accurately records a key second of an event.

The question of talent vs luck often comes up during visits to media classes at high schools and college campuses that I’m privileged to do as a now “senior” member of the photojournalistic community.

Luck came into play a few days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in Washington and the Pentagon in Arlington County, Va., While dropping my wife off at the Kaiser-Permanente medical center in Falls Church, I saw a movie theater with a flag hanging from the marquee, a good enough photo by itself, but luck added the motorcycle with a tattered American flag coming by on the street at just that time made it a more memorable photograph that was published in several newspapers around the world and magazines.

An unknown motorcyclist passes a movie theater in Falls Church, VA, a few days after the 9/11 attack on Sept. 11, 2001. (Photos by Doug Thompson)

The same could be said of a shot of a fireman with both exhaustion and horror on his face at the Pentagon on that tragic day.

At best, I’ve been a journeyman newspaper photographer for six decades. I’ve been lucky.

My first news photo was published by the Richmond News-Leader in 1958 when I was 11 years old and living in Farmville in Prince Edward County, Va,, where a racist school board and supervisors vote to close the public schools to defy a federal court order to integrate.

The Ku Klux Klan controlled the school leadership and the Board of Supervisors in Prince Edward but when the chairman of that board claimed the Klan did not exist in the county, I took my camera and snuck through thick woods to photograph the collection of racists surrounding a burning cross.

The luck came when Ben Bowers, then an editor at the Farmville Herald, said the paper’s owners would not allow him to use the photo but he sent it to a friend at the News Leader-Leader, which used it. It convinced me that being a newspaperman was what I wanted to do with my life.

In the 60+ years that followed, I have been assigned to cover wars, sports (high school, college, and professional), elections (local, state, and national), tragedies (9/11, Space Shuttle explosions, school massacres, etc.), and more.

An Israeli soldier guards the prayer wall of the Old City of Jerusalem as a young man prays.

Luck often provided the best photo: A soldier guarding the prayer wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. An exhausted soldier sitting alongside a tank, taking a break with puppies who cuddled up against him, or a musician in a grab shot that became a popular portrait. A man and his son touching the engraved name on the Vietnam Memorial War of the father and grandfather who died in that war.

Remembering: A son and a grandson visit the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, DC. Their father and grandfather’s name is on the wall.

And there is the “grab shot,” one that I captured while leaving an event, like the one at the top of this page: Musicians playing on the street in front of the Floyd Country Store during one of the Friday Night Jamboree. Luck, not talent, made it a memorable shot that was used in The Floyd Press, the Roanoke Times, and hangs in one of the rooms at Hotel Floyd.

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