RACINE — Esteban Malacara, the Case High School Academy of Business and Culinary Arts principal, has recently noticed a few students have been saving up money to buy their own cameras.
The students are taking up a hobby instilled in them by the new photography and art teacher at the school, René Amado, who goes by Mr. Guzman in the classroom.
“Mr. Guzman’s ability to connect with young people, his passion for what he teaches, it comes across with his students. The way they light up,” said Malacara, Amado’s cousin.
As a recipient of the inaugural Racine Art Museum’s Emerging Artist Award in 2020, Amado’s influential work extends far in the community both as an exhibitor of his own art in galleries across the city and now as a teacher.
But the road was long, and often times winding, for Amado before he fully committed to photography as a career.
He had been working as a printer for a large organization in San Antonio, where he lived for almost a decade. On one of his last days before quitting his job, he had 90 unopened emails of print requests to complete.
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“Somebody would be at the door waiting for me, my boss would need something, I would have emails, and then the print shop would need something — my day was just making this circle around,” Amado said.
After work, Amado would grab a camera and hit the streets of San Antonio. Photography was his budding hobby at the time; his father was an amateur photographer.
He didn’t even have a fancy camera. He used his father’s old equipment; 35-millimeter film cameras and old pocket-size, fixed-lens cameras.
“I was working downtown, I would get off of work and my job was super stressful. So I would just go, like, wander around after work with a camera,” Amado said. “I just wanted to clear my head and take photos. It was like a way to unwind and relieve stress.”
Amado then returned to Racine in 2017, where he was born and raised, and opened René Amado Photography.
‘It can be my key’
Amado photographs events, portraits, weddings, food and fashion with an affinity for street photography; he calls himself “an introverted street photographer.”
His interest in photography began in the 1980s with his father’s magazines. Being so young, he only browsed the magazines to give him something to look at — but as a teenager, he picked up a lowrider magazine and that piqued his interest even more, not only in photography but in lowriders.
Lowriders are custom cars that hang low to the road, typically expressing an aspect of a driver’s identity through paint jobs and velvet seats, down to the details of the rims or the shiny trim.
They’re most prominent in Mexican American communities; historically, lowriders were often Latino men from Texas or Southern California, according to research from the Smithsonian.
Lowrider culture trickled out to other cities across the country like Chicago, where Amado regularly attends lowrider festivals. His brother-in-law used to custom build lowriders and Amado himself had a few lowrider motorcycles when he was a teenager; he’s still a part of the community.
It was at these lowrider festivals where Amado practiced photography, too. “I would always grab whatever camera I could and take some photos of the car shows.”
“Books are a common denominator, an equalizer for everyone to get education. It’s one way I can contribute to the community,” said Mahogany Gallery Owner Scott Terry.
When hundreds of demonstrators hit the streets of Racine after George Floyd’s murder and the shooting of Jacob Blake in 2020, Amado followed along with his camera. Some of his photographs of those events are on display at Mahogany Art Gallery in Uptown, 1422 Washington Ave.
“I feel like I see a lot of myself in what I photograph. And so I see these people and the emotion and the statements that they’re making. And it’s things that I feel like saying — it’s things that I feel like screaming out,” Amado said.
He continued, “I just felt compelled to photograph it … That first night, I just remember watching and listening to things online, and seeing what was going on … I do it (take pictures) because that’s who I am, I feel like it’s what I’m supposed to do … It felt good to be out there and be a part of that.”
Amado’s artist statement to RAM discussed his experience as a photographer amidst the pandemic and civil unrest in 2020, and how he viewed his camera as a “Swiss army knife.”
The camera, he wrote, “can be my key, my pen, my crutch, as well as my sword. Wielding it, while so many dramatic events and scenes unfolded across Southeast Wisconsin and our country, became an impassioned duty for me.”
Malacara said Amado is “much more than a teacher,” offering Case students real-world experiences that can’t always be taught by encouraging them to photograph what they like, and showing them they can make a career out of a hobby.
Amado teaches photography, graphic design and yearbook classes; and those very students he teaches have been observed volunteering to take photos at school events like bonfires and football games.
Of pursuing creative outlets, Malacara said Amado is “creating a culture of kids that want to do this.”
Growing up in Racine, Amado felt pressure to work a factory job given all of the prominent companies headquartered in the county. “I never thought of any sort of art as being a career path. I always just figured I would end up at one of these factory jobs,” he said.
Since starting his job at Case mid-August, he has opened up students’ minds to opportunities in the art scene in Racine, oftentimes connecting them to different artists. His goal is to show them that a career in art is possible.
Amado has even inspired close friends to pick up photography as a hobby. Rich Villareal, who has been friends with Amado since childhood, said Amado encouraged him by telling him, “You have a good eye. You see things differently.”
Amado was the first person Villareal went to when he decided to pick up a camera. They took trips to Chicago and Milwaukee to practice street photography. Eventually, one of Villareal’s shots that he took at the Kenosha Public Library was printed and displayed on storefront windows in Uptown Racine.
“He taught me everything,” Villareal said. “I’m beyond proud of him … My hope is that the kids will learn how to shine through their own lens from him.”
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