Luis Millan-Lara

Age: 29
Resides: Hickory
Occupation: Photographer, Social Media Specialist, Business Advocate, Mentor


Where are you from?
Where do I start? I was born in Mexico City and raised here in the Hickory Metro.  My father has siblings who emigrated from Mexico to North Carolina. When I was young, they convinced my dad to come and work on the fields at a farm. He worked as a farm hand for seven months until he was able save enough money to bring my Mother, younger brother and myself to the United States.

Those were some good days. I remember when we were little, having mum in the house with a working father and all of us together. My dad would get up early and work until seven o'clock at night, and then he would come home and get up in the morning and do it again. Our family moved around North Carolina while my Dad continued to find work as a farm laborer and settled in Morganton when he began working at his brother’s Mexican store and restaurant.

My father's ultimate goal was to open his own business. He did not work for someone else but was willing to do what was necessary while he saved up some money.  My father has always been a fan of tacos. He didn't just love eating tacos; he loved making tacos. He loved making food for people. On the weekends, Saturday and Sunday, he would make tacos and sell them from our house. This was in Hickory in 1997, and not many Latinos had businesses then. You didn't see all these small little shops like you're seeing now.

People found out about him through word of mouth. They were coming from the community and traveling from the surrounding area. He became so popular he was able to open his own restaurant and Mexican store in Conover. That was in 1999 or early 2000. He was maybe the second Latino business owner in Catawba County who was selling tacos. I helped out doing whatever I could, cleaning tables and serving food. It was a family business, so my mother and I and my siblings would help out. The success of his first business allowed my father to open his second business, Las Isabelas, in Hickory.

When the economy hit after 9/11, it was hard for my father to have both. It was more like one was sustaining the other, and he couldn’t keep up with it. He sold the business in Hickory to his sibling, Carlos, in 2002, and the business in Conover was struggling as well. 9/11 just took a really hard hit on people. My dad was forced to sell the business, and we moved to South Carolina for a year where he started a food truck business selling tacos.

He was an innovator all the way through his career.
He was an innovator. He parked his food truck outside of a Latino nightclub at 7:00 PM and didn't leave until 3:00 AM. It was a sacrifice for him. It was hard because he went from having two businesses where he was open for 12 hours every day to having to do this again on the weekends.

By this time, my mom and my father had separated. I lived with my father, but after a year of living with him and with the inconsistency, I told him, "Dad, I think it's time I go live with mom. I love you, but I have to." I came back to Catawba County.

How did you get into photography?
Living with my mother, we would always go to the flea market on Saturdays. I remember walking into one of the shops there, and I saw this film camera. I asked my mom if she could buy it for me. It was $13, and my mom at this time was a single mother with three kids and she tried to do as much as she could for us. She was sweet and agreed. The $13 was fine, but having to buy all the film was the hardest part. That's where my passion for photography came from, just taking pictures of my friends and family.

I remember taking pictures when we had family over at the house for Thanksgiving. We started celebrating Thanksgiving once we had the idea that this is home. Mexico is where we were born, but this is home. Once we came to that realization, we slowly started integrating Thanksgiving into our culture. It became part of our celebration. It was always at my mother's house and we would have my mother's siblings come over and bring their kids, my cousins, and we would invite some friends. Our house was small, too crowded and too warm, but in a good way because it was the holidays.

What intrigued you about the camera when you saw it?
I always liked the Kodak commercials. I've always enjoyed seeing happy moments and people. As a kid, everything was happy. I wanted to capture every single happy moment. My mom bought the camera, and from there it just became this thing. At that time, I didn't know photography was something people could do. I didn't know how intense photography was, how professional. I thought it was just having a camera and taking pictures.

How did that evolve for you?
I would always bring my camera to school, and I would take pictures of my friends and some of the basketball games and the soccer games. Someone came up to me one day and said, "Hey, we noticed you always have a camera with you. Do you have any pictures you want to turn in for the yearbook?” I did, and some of them were published. That made me feel special in a way.

When I graduated Hickory High School, my father was living in Virginia. I went to see him and ended up staying there for about three-and-a-half years. During that time, I took a few courses in photography because I really wanted to learn about it. I had invested in a brand new a DSLR camera with a lens and a full kit. Then I took courses to learn about lighting and settings, and I became even more passionate about it.

When I moved back to Hickory, I bought a much better quality camera. I started doing work for friends. When I started working at The Crossing at Hollar Mill, I would take pictures for some of the weddings and I would provide some to the Crossing for social media use. They loved it. I was working, so I wouldn't charge them for the pictures. I started thinking, "I would like to work under a photographer in town who can teach me more."

I thought about Fanjoy-Labrenz, two local, well-known photographers. I got up some courage and went to their studio and asked if they needed an intern. I was not looking to get paid, but I wanted to learn from them. They were a little hesitant. They took my contact information and I left. Just a couple days later, Sally Fanjoy called and said, "You know, we don't have much for you to do, but if you want to come in, you can maybe watch me edit some pictures on Photoshop and Lightroom and check out some photo shoots."

I learned so much from them. The editing, the lighting, the software, the angles. They were really great teachers. They had a studio and they did photo shoots at furniture companies, so I traveled along and helped. From there, I wanted to do more portrait photography and landscape photography. I think that was probably a six-month-long internship.

How did you end up going out on your own?
I invested in some quality gear, and I was determined to get my name out there.  I told my friends, "Hey, if you need some fun pictures, call me. I'll give you a really good price." I would use my sister as a model for photos on social media. I was able to grow and show people what I could do. It's not easy when you want to start a business, to be self-employed. It's scary. It really is.

It seems like that's something you have in common with your dad.
Yes, that’s exactly why I wanted to start my story with him, because that drive I absolutely have from him. I enjoy working with people and for other people. I think over time, it just became wanting to do something for myself and be my own boss.

I started my photography business in 2016, Valencia Photography. My first event as a business owner was with NBC for their 25th Anniversary. I have a friend who works in the financial department for NBC in Charlotte. He knew I was a photographer and that my work was good, and he was willing to help me. I really wanted to do it for the experience. It was unbelievable I was even there, because it was a big event. That motivated me to do more.

In 2018, my company was hired by Highland Avenue to do social media management. Part of that was for social media posting, including pictures for the Music in the Mill events. Creating content for social media became something I really found joy in. I started doing that along with one of my really good friends, Melissa Reyes. She’s in charge of most of the scheduling and posting, and I'm in charge of creating content for the pages. Will Locke handles the paid ad campaigns. We all complement each other.

Were you working other jobs during the formative years of your photography business as well?
Yes. I needed a supplemental income. I work with my cousin at Las Isabelas, which is still part of our family business. My cousin Elizabeth and her husband are owners of the business. It is bigger now, and I hope it will continue to grow. I want to help them do that.

I want to share the knowledge I learned from people who are involved in the community. I've learned that the city can help small businesses. I feel sometimes there’s a lack of communication to Latino small businesses, because they don't know how to get financial grants or assistance from the city. To me, it is about being involved and knowing people. Elizabeth and her husband and I are working together to get some of that help, and I would like to help other small businesses get assistance by reaching out to the city on their behalf.

That sounds like how you got started, when you reached out to local photographers to help you learn the trade and start a business. Now you’re on the other side of that, working to help others.
For me, if I know something, I do not want to keep it inside. I want to share it with people that need it. Elizabeth and I work together so well, not just because we're family but because we have a drive to grow. She's helped me as much as I have helped her. It's just been wonderful to work together. Now I want to help other small businesses in Hickory and Catawba County.

What makes life good here for you?
The people. The South. I have never experienced a negative vibe from anyone. I'm lucky enough to have never felt left out. My childhood memories are here. My friends are here. People that I know are here. This is home. That's why I love Catawba County, because it's home. It's always been home for me. I've gone to other cities and I've lived in other counties, and it's not the same. Also, my family lives here. That's another big factor why I love this town.

For instance, we are sitting in Taste Full Beans right now. I know Scott and Julie, the owners, and they make me feel like I’m not just another customer. I like that small town feeling. When I walk downtown or go out to eat in Hickory, I always see people I know. I don't think I could have that anywhere else.

Ten years from now, what does life look like for you?
Definitely I would like to have my own photography studio. What I would like to do is have 10 different cameras with maybe three different rooms of lighting set up. I would love to rent it to different photographers who are looking to learn and grow.

I would also like to grow what I'm starting to do now, which is social media management and marketing. I would like our team to keep growing together and helping local businesses grow.

Is anything else you would like to add?
I believe it’s important to know the community you live in. Hickory is just a special place. I've always felt like I belong in Catawba County. I want to help Hickory grow. How can we make it more diversified, more connected, and how can we get people more involved?

I know the Latino community is not as involved as I would like them to be. When you think about how much time owning a business takes, you don't have the luxury of being able to engage with the community other than in your business. I would like to influence them to get more involved.

I'm 29 and I'm going to end my 20's the best I can, and I'm going to start my 30's with so much drive.

More drive? We’re excited to see what comes of that. You're going to set the world on fire.
Yes!  I am very excited for the future.