- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2000

With an imperceptible click of the camera's shutter, Nestor Hernandez captures the exuberance and fearlessness of youth.
Children epitomize the best humanity has to offer, Mr. Hernandez says, and through his art, he's able to keep them forever young.
In fact, he has titled his photographic exhibit "Forever Young: A Portrait of the Black Child."
This collection of 80 black-and-white images depicts children in a variety of settings and moods whether playing or at work. They are children in their own environments.
The candid images are complemented by concise verses written by Baltimore poet Laini Mataka.
"My work in this exhibit concentrates on the positive nature of young people. I believe while there's still great suffering and evil rampant in the world, there is also abundant evidence of strength, courage, joy and hope," says Mr. Hernandez, 39.
"These qualities have not been adequately celebrated, especially in regards to children of color," he says.
Mr. Hernandez says seeing his exhibit installed at the Capital Children's Museum was like going home. For 15 years, he worked as the museum's photographer-in-residence.
"I literally grew up at the Children's Museum I was there all of the time. So, it was the perfect place to do this exhibit, not only because it dealt with children, but the museum is where I got my start in photography. The museum was my training ground," Mr. Hernandez says.
* * *
In 1978, he started a photography program for youngsters at the museum, where he came up with the idea of having children photograph their communities.
"It was a huge project, documenting the H Street community in Northeast which included photography, video and oral histories," he says. "The kids took the photographs and interviewed residents who had lived through the 1968 riots. There were some amazing stories simply amazing."
After the H Street success, the photography program focused on Capitol Hill, downtown Washington and Alexandria. Mr. Hernandez set up an exchange program of sorts, in which a group of young people from Alexandria documented H Street in Northeast, and District youth documented Alexandria.
Mr. Hernandez, who lives in the bustling and multicultural Mount Pleasant neighborhood in Northwest, originated yet another photography program, which was funded by the D.C. Department of Recreation in 1993. It was designed not only to teach children photography, but also to show them how to use a camera as a means of discovering their neighborhoods.
"We spent two years [in 1993 and 1994] documenting the Mount Pleasant neighborhood which resulted in several large exhibitions at the Mount Pleasant Library and at the District Building," Mr. Hernandez says.
"I'm fascinated with the work children do and how fascinated they are with photography the things they can do with a camera and how they express their vision of the world," he adds.
He's fascinated by how children's expressions and activities translate on film; he attributes it to their honesty and lack of pretense.
"Forever Young" embodies Mr. Hernandez's work, dating back to 1985. He traveled the globe with his 35mm camera and one or two lenses to photograph children as far away as Cuba and Ghana. The majority of images included in this exhibit, however, were taken, figuratively, in his own back yard.
"My exhibit is really meant to show that young people are the same all over the world, whether they are in Cuba, Ghana or the United States," he says.
For example, there's a series of photographs of children playing. A little girl in Northeast swings from monkey bars in a playground, and another little girl, in Cuba, swings from scaffolding. The poetry adds another dimension to the show.
"I'd always wanted to combine poetry with the images, and I thought that this exhibit was the perfect opportunity to do that," Mr. Hernandez says.
"The combination of photography and poetry worked really well. Laini and I work well together," Mr. Hernandez says of his collaborator, Ms. Mataka.
Ms. Mataka, 50, shares the same sentiments about Mr. Hernandez.
* * *
A Baltimore native, she moved to Washington in 1992. She says her love of writing began when she was 13 years old.
Once Ms. Mataka, 50, viewed Mr. Hernandez's images of children at his studio, Black Pearl Photography, inside the Belmont Arts Building in Adams Morgan in Northwest, she was ready to write.
"The photographs were the total and complete inspiration," the author and poet says. "Nestor's a gracious person with a such loving spirit. I knew I'd found a photographer I could work with."
Mr. Hernandez hopes he and Ms. Mataka will work together again in the near future.
"I'd like to take "Forever Young" to a few other galleries outside of the Washington area," he says, "and Laini and I want to work on a book together. That was my intention when I put together this exhibit."
Mr. Hernandez also photographs children as chief photographer for the D.C. Public Schools, a position he has held since 1995. Whenever there's a special event or a guest visits any D.C. public school, Mr. Hernandez is sure to be there with camera in hand.
Children have become an integral part of his life and career.
"I guess I've just always worked with children," he says with a broad smile and a chuckle.

WHAT: "Forever Young: A Portrait of the Black Child"
WHERE: Capital Children's Museum, 800 Third St. NE
ADMISSION: $6 per person, $4 for seniors, free for children 2 years old and younger and members
HOURS: 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. seven days a week
PHONE: 202/675-4120

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