“I had the lowest SAT scores in California,” photographer Laura Hatcher says with a hearty laugh in her tiny portrait studio in Old Town Alexandria.
That fact might have made her career trajectory quite improbable: a Navy brat who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, and retired as a Navy captain following a career as an intelligence officer. And, just as her first career provided tools for success, her uncomfortable transition to civilian life spurred Hatcher to reach out and help others.
Hatcher was born in London, but her Navy stepfather eventually transferred to Rota, Spain, and then San Diego. Hatcher attended preparatory school and then the Naval Academy on an academic scholarship for volleyball.
“As an athlete, I had a very big ego, but that school brought it back down to size, because the academics at the Naval Academy is no joke; everyone graduates with an engineering degree, regardless of study,” Hatcher said. “Differential equations and naval architecture are required courses.”
She added that her weakness in math was eventually conquered, which made her graduation even sweeter.
Hatcher said her first tour as a diver and driving a salvage ship were discouraging, arduous duties. After conferring with her stepfather, by then retired, she switched to intelligence officer.
In 2015, she was living in Fairfax, pushing away the winter doldrums and attended a night course in basic photography. She initially hated it, because the first class was filled with math, discussing such technicalities as f-stops and shutter speeds. She stuck with it, though, and later came to understand that the camera is a sort of passport.
“What I discovered from that teacher is that you get access to places with a camera,” Hatcher said. “If you’re not supposed to be there, you can beg forgiveness.” After a class tour photographing inside the National Cathedral, she was hooked.
Four years ago, Hatcher wandered into a small photo studio in Alexandria and met photographer Katie Garlock, who was doing portraiture. She asked Garlock if she would be her mentor – a valuable practice Hatcher cultivated in the Navy. Garlock agreed, and loaned her lighting equipment that Hatcher could use at her house.
With her new skills, Hatcher regularly offered free headshots to service members in the Transition Assistance Program, adding a professional headshot to their post-military job searches.
“I’d spend time each month helping those over at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, and set up in the break room to give the entire class complimentary head shots,” Hatcher said. “I do it because that first year I was out of service, I was struggling to find my footing, and didn’t know what was missing. I realized it was a loss of community and talking to people that understood me.”
Hatcher said she also collaborated with the Richmond-based nonprofit Boots to Suits, which provides veterans with business attire, enabling them to look and feel their best for job interviews, while Hatcher provided the professional headshots.
After four years of mentoring, Garlock retired and moved away, and Hatcher assumed the rent on the studio, now the home of Laura Hatcher Photography.
For her continued service, Hatcher was honored at the 2021 Virginia Women Veterans Summit last month with the Trailblazer Award from the Virginia Department of Veteran Services. The award recognizes creativity, vision, courage, commitment and tenacity in advocating for and creating changes to improve the quality of life for Virginia’s women veterans.
“One of the highlights of our … summit is to recognize and honor our outstanding fellow Virginia women veterans for their dedication, innovation and contributions to improving the lives of all women who serve or served in our military,” said Beverly VanTull, the department’s women veterans program manager. “Laura Hatcher is most deserving of this award.”
Hatcher said paying it forward is just part of the military ethos.
“It’s what we learned to do when we’re in uniform, right? Teamwork is helping our shipmate,” Hatcher said. “If you take care of your people, they will take care of you.”