Feature: Hazel Thompson

This interview, conducted in Tesco's, Burnley, in 2006, was part of my reserach into documentary images during an application to do my photography MA. It has never been published.


Don't give up

by Garry Cook


When a picture can bring you to tears, it’s job done for the photographer. If that photographer can pull off the same trick time and time again, you know she’s onto something.


Hazel Thompson is fast becoming known as a photojournalist who hits the heart with her thought-provoking work on some of the world’s most shocking injustices.

Still just 28, Hazel is something of a veteran in producing hard-hitting photojournalist essays. If you’re not left feeling shocked by her pictures, you’re emotionally defunct.

She's infiltrated prisons in the Far East to expose child abuse, she's followed Christian bikers for months at a time as they trawl across America and she's highlighted India’s hideous child sex trade.

The thing is, Hazel rarely works for a commission. If she’s lucky, her expenses get paid, if she’s unlucky her pictures won’t get picked up. She readily admits this part of the photographic industry can be testing at times - often forced to do commercial jobs to pay the bills.

Renowned photographer Tom Stoddart also warned her at the start of her freelance journey, ‘this is a champagne lifestyle on a beer salary’. She says he was right. But passion goes a long way in this business and she has it in spades.

The morning we meet, Hazel is in the far from exotic surroundings of Tesco's in Burnley. With a Channel Four News film crew shadowing her, she spent the previous night in Lancashire on the trail of runaway children. Off her own back, she is following up a story she first shot for the Observer.


A cheap and cheerful breakfast in Burnley seems a million miles away from harrowing images of child prisoners in the Philippines. You can’t say Hazel Thompson doesn’t get around.


Much of Hazel’s work is long-term – she rarely goes in, shoots, and gets out. When she commits to a project, she is fully committed, such as her slant on Christianity through various sub-cultures (like the bikers mentioned above) which is an ongoing book project.


For Kids Behind Bars, the story of forgotten child prisoners, Hazel linked-up with the children's charity Jubilee Action to gain access to several filthy jails in the Philippines - not that the Philippine government knew what she was doing.

Working under the guise of a prison visitor, her brief was to reveal the truly horrendous conditions which children endure. You may remember seeing the story on ITV News. They smuggled their cameras into the prison a week after Hazel's visit. "The crucial thing was I could not blow the cover for the TV crew. For me, I was under even more pressure. I had to make sure I caused no suspicion so the crew could get in the next week.


“Some of the kids have been in there for two years for the pettiest of crimes and end up being so abused by the end of it. They tell you how horrific it is, how ill the children are, but I was shocked because nothing really prepares you."

As a charity visitor, Hazel was able to take her camera inside on the notion of taking pictures of staff to help raise funds. Photographing the prisoners was strictly vetoed.

"I tried to keep eye contact with the wardens by talking to them, kind of keeping them busy and away from what my hands were doing and I was constantly looking around to see what I wanted, and assessing where I wanted to go,” she added.

"There was one jail by the river which was horrific where there was a boy with a diseased face. That prison was a hell zone. We came down a corridor with cells literally packed either side.

"There had been flooding - and the noise, I'll never ever forget how loud it was. Really, really loud. I was blown away because it was shocking. Everything, the sound the heat, low ventilation, the stink and the conditions. It was so intense. It was so shocking.”

As well as deceiving the jailers, Hazel also had to contend with the reactions of the children.


"I didn't want to do a shot where they were all reacting,” she said. “Women coming in, Western women, they are all responding.

"I was constantly moving around keeping people distracted, not staying in one place, going off to talk to someone and the whole time analysing the situation - looking for shots, looking at what I want to get. The time frame and the intensity was just unbelievable. You feel like you're in a hellhole.

"I was getting angry at what I was seeing as well, and I was getting upset. I lost my breath because it was so overwhelming. I know how I was responding but I was thinking, 'how the hell am I supposed to get this on film?'."

Did I mention Hazel did not actually get paid for putting her neck on the line?
One of the biggest problems in the mega-competitive world of photojournalism is getting your work published. Most of Hazel’s essays have been completed off her own back, some have not even been published until they’ve picked up an award.


"Jubilee don't pay me,” she explains. “But all my expenses are paid up front and then I can syndicate the story.”


Not content with gambling on the chance that her pictures are good enough to be published her work often involves a date with danger - photographing surfers under huge waves or standing on a speeding Harley Davidson, minus a helmet.

Hazel, who uses a Canon EOS-1n and EOS-3, admits: "I'm quite experimental. If I'm honest, I'm still finding myself, but I love that. Everyone should experiment, you've got to find out who you are as a photographer.

"If I told you some of the stuff I did on the back of the bikes, it’s not very health and safety... and my mother would kill me.

"I was on the road for 2,000 miles round Texas - they don't wear helmets in Texas. I took some risks on that story. You'd be riding along and I would stand up with my feet on the back to get a perfect shot. When I was on the bike I had two bodies my 85mm and my 16-35mm. I kind of strangled myself with my cameras." Mum - it was worth it, she got the Hodge!

And what about technique? "For stories I use shorter lenses," she says. "I believe what [Robert] Capa said that you've got to be close to your subject, shorter lenses are better. I'm realising that more and more as I develop as a photographer.

"People always worry about the kit. The amount of people that write to me always makes me laugh or if I do a lecture. What film did you use? What camera were you using? But it's so much more than about the camera. You've got to have a good kit but for me I'm not so worried about having the best camera.

"I mainly shoot on 400 film, but I love to chase light, play with light, I like using a slow shutter speed. I probably have an inclination to go that way. I love to bring a bit of movement in."

Stories like the girl rescued from the sex trade in India are what drives Hazel. "People always want to respond so for me it is really important that when people see the pictures there is a way they can respond. It still amazes me the heart of people. I love it, I love how people can get affected by a picture."

Her globetrotting is a far cry from her humble beginnings as a photographer. She turned up at the Croydon Advertiser in 1997 doing up to eight jobs a day. Hazel recalls: "I came in to do work experience on the Monday and this guy I was meant to shadow was ill so they sent me out be myself because they were desperate. I freelanced for them and they kind of trained me there.

"A local paper is a great place way to learn because there are that many jobs to do per day. The only thing is you've got to kind of challenge yourself to get the pictures for you instead of just getting it tight and bright."

In 1999 Hazel took her fledgling portfolio to the Daily Express where chief photographer John Downing offered her his advice.

Of Downing she says: "He was a bit of a legend and he said come and spend some time with me. He took me under his wing, mentored me. Through him I met Tom Stoddart and he kind of said, 'what are you doing as a photographer, what do you have to say?'. He just challenged me.

She recalls: “I went off and did my first story which I did on Christian bikers in America. I came back, John and Tom looked at it and just went, 'there's some nice shots here, but it's not a story. It's not strong enough, its not good enough - go back'."

This is the bit where Hazel differs from the rest of us. She refuses to give up, no matter what the cost.  "I went back, paying for it with my money,” she admits. “I went on the road with these guys, spent a month with them and came back with a stronger narrative. Then I went and did the rounds, went to the papers, magazines. People were saying they'd take it but there was another story out at the time on bikers in Harlem."

As a business venture, the trip was a disaster. However, the pictures led to an agency taking Hazel on - she is now with Eyevine – and they were eventually highly commended in the 2001 Observer Hodge Awards.


It’s that sort of perseverance that should inspire anyone flirting with the idea of giving up the cosy life and going it alone as a photographer - it’s worked for Hazel Thompson. And just think, if she hadn’t made that leap, she might never have visited places like Burnley.




Awards List (up to 2006 only):

The Observer Hodge Photographic Award 2001 highly commended (Bikers for God)
The Sunday Times Ian Parry Award highly commended 2002 (Modern Crusaders)
The Sunday Times Ian Parry Award highly commended 2002 and 2003 (Innocents Delivered).
Observer Hodge Photographic Award third 2004 (Hidden Legacy).
Observer Hodge Photographic Award winner 2005 (Kids Behind Bars)
Picture Editors Awards 2006 winner (Kids Behind Bars).
Photo District News 2006 winner (Kids Behind Bars).
CARE International Award for Humanitarian Reportage 2006, Visa pour l’image
Le Prix Special du 60th Anniversaire de CARE 2006 winner (Kids Behind Bars).



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