Photographer Vanessa Hicks tells PEOPLE about the positive – and hateful – response she's received

By Maria Mercedes Lara
Updated March 14, 2015 05:00 PM
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Credit: Courtesy Vanessa Hicks

Landon Clevenger is just barely two weeks old, but he’s already become an Internet star.

Last Sunday, photographer Vanessa Hicks of Virginia Beach, Virginia, held a shoot with Samantha and Rodney Clevenger with their then-8-day-old son. The group wanted to incorporate Rodney’s military background into the shoot.

“We scoured Pinterest looking for military newborn photos,” Hicks tells PEOPLE. “We wanted to include it with this newborn shoot.”

Hicks and Samantha both decided on a shot of Landon wrapped in an American flag, but when the photographer shared a preview of the image on her Facebook page, she wasn’t prepared for the negative response.

“When I posted this photo to my [Facebook] business page, I had not idea this photo would be trending and the reaction we would get out of it,” says Hicks, who is herself a Navy veteran and married to a sailor. “This Facebook group [picked it up] and then bashed it and bashed myself and all of those people stared sharing it.”

The group, You Call Yourself a Photographer, accused Hicks and the Clevengers of being unpatriotic and of breaking the U.S. Flag Code, a set of etiquette guidelines surrounding the handling and proper care of a U.S. flag, which includes not wearing the flag or using it as bedding.

Members of the group, which has since been deleted, sent Hicks hateful messages, including, according to her, calls for her to commit suicide.

However, once people outside of the group got wind of the negative reaction, they rallied around Hicks and the Clevengers.

“Ninety percent of the response we are getting are positive,” Hicks says. “People have called me all the way from Canada saying it represents exactly what it mean to serve in the military and to even be an American.”

And despite the initial backlash, Hicks is still open to constructive criticism.

“Now the topic can be discussed in a more educated and mature way,” she says. “It’s our freedom of speech to agree or disagree with it.”

Indeed, Hicks’ picture has gone viral, with her receiving messages and calls from people all over the world, including in Japan. And almost all of the response has been positive.

“This [Facebook] group started all of this with evil and hate. I don’t think they intended it to get this kind of response.”