Hazen High School has a world-class photographer. Senior Luis Hernandez has been pushing himself in his photography and his identity through his portraits of streets and street art, which was recently exhibited internationally.
Hernandez decided to take a photography class his junior year at Hazen, which was the “little push that he needed.” Before that he used his mother’s old point-and-shoot camera and disposable film cameras. Hernandez worked for several months to afford his first digital camera junior year.
That same year he went to Mexico for the first time. He became inspired taking photos of the street art there and continued that work back in Washington. He usually goes to Seattle to find the art that will speak to him, and to his past.
His cultural heritage has become an important part of Hernandez’ education, Hazen teacher Zach Orcutt said. Hernandez said Orcutt is not only someone he looks up to but also helped him on a personal level. They met his sophomore year.
Orcutt doesn’t want to take any credit— he has seen Hernandez do all the work himself to get his photography out there. Orcutt is a social studies teacher and also works with students at risk of not graduating with credit recovery.
When Orcutt met Hernandez, he said it was clear he was passionate and inquisitive, but the education system had not been kind to him. In his World Studies class, Orcutt encouraged him to use the classroom to explore his own background and heritage.
Orcutt works with other staff to create a diverse curriculum at Hazen, and take away the Eurocentric way social studies is often taught. The pivot to learn about his own history, the history that isn’t well represented in American textbooks, pushed Hernandez to get his academic act together.
“The school system saw him as somebody who didn’t care that much, when in reality all he had to do is see that the stuff he cared about, mattered. And that he mattered,” Orcutt said.
Hernandez moved to Renton in third grade from Seattle with his family. He missed living in Seattle, in the city, and the places there he holds dear. That includes La Conasupo Restaurant and Market, in Greenwood.
Growing up in a traditional household, he went to church every Sunday. He said his family did not have a lot of money and his mother had to work a lot, so he was often with a babysitter. It’s part of why the places he would go to with his family growing up in Seattle are so special to him, including La Conasupo after church.
“It was a really special thing— we all got together and just ate. That was really nice,” Hernandez said.
The restaurant was an “outpost” of culture for him in a changing landscape. He said it was like walking into his abuela’s kitchen. The owner still remembers Hernandez from when he was young and got pricked by a cactus in the store. Hernandez says the owners can’t forget the scolding he got for that mistake. While exploring Seattle growing up, he was drawn to the street art and graffiti, including that which was surrounding La Conasupo.
He had always enjoyed street art but didn’t have the drawing skills to pull it off himself, Hernandez said. He was also inspired by the movie “City of God” and decided to start taking steps towards photography, journalism and documentary making.
Orcutt and Hernandez had always talked about photography — neither can draw but enjoy taking photos. Orcutt said he’s always regretted letting go of photography after high school, and talked to Hernandez about that. He sees Hernandez work as examining the beauty of the not-so-sanitized, gentrifying world.
“For Luis, so much of (his photography) is about expressing himself, and his journey,” Orcutt said. “The impressive thing is it’s all him doing the work, using his own time to improve and researching his heritage and culture. It’s a young man taking advantage of little sparks and chasing his dreams in a way he didn’t think was possible.”
Photography has taught Hernandez to see things are more than face value. Orcutt said Hernandez knows how to take a large mural or well-known graffiti and frame it in a way where you “see something you’ve seen before, for the first time.”
Hernandez started using the website GuruShots to manage his photos, and said Orcutt inspired him to start entering the photos in the contests that GuruShots holds on its websites. The photos with the most votes end up in exhibits around the world. And after competing over and and over, Hernandez ended up placing four photos in the street art category, three from Seattle and one from a trip to Japan, in an exhibit in Barcelona, Spain.
Renton School District highlighted Hernandez in a recent newsletter, stating how impressive his entrance in an international art exhibit is, given that he just began taking photos his junior year.
Hernandez’ photos were displayed Feb. 14 to Feb. 16 at Valid World Hall in Barcelona, Spain. That has been a big eye-opener.
“When it really came down to it (my reaction) was, ‘Oh snap, I actually have something out there,’” Hernandez said.
The exhibit made him take his art more seriously. He went from someone who wasn’t sure if he’d finish high school, to applying to four-year colleges across the country. After graduation, Hernandez said he wants to move to a big city, and finally start his own story.