From the first moment Alexis Vazquez picked up a camera at age 14, she knew she was hooked for life.
"My aunt was visiting and brought a Canon SLR with her," said Vazquez, a Valrico resident and a senior at Bloomingdale High School. "I started taking random pictures with it, and fell in love. Before I knew it, I was researching cameras, looking up photographers and learning everything I could about photography."
Her parents purchased her a pink Samsung point-and-shoot, and Vazquez spent her spare time teaching herself photography. Then her grandfather bought her a Nikon D60 camera and, at age 16, Vazquez launched her own photography business, Alexis Marie Photography.
"Even now, it's a constant learning process for me," said Vazquez, who has since upgraded to a Nikon D7000 camera.
During the summer of 2010, she attended a seminar at the Savannah College of Art & Design, learning how to use her camera on manual to achieve special effects.
"Something just clicked for me when I picked up my first camera, and I knew this was what I wanted to do," she said.
Her favorite subject is children.
"I don't like posed pictures, and children just act naturally in front of a camera," she said.
However, she also loves to do portraits of people.
"I like to capture people's personalities," she said. "Portraiture is really my niche."
Vazquez said captivated by the enduring quality of photography.
"Memories fade but pictures never change," said Vazquez. "Pictures preserve the memory of the moment."
Most recently, Vazquez has gotten into wedding photography. Her first assignment was a beach wedding. She recalls being on pins and needles throughout the event, worried she'd mess up the photos. However, everything went smoothly and the bride was pleased with her work.
She is now assisting on two other weddings with a professional photography outfit from Tampa she encountered at a wedding expo.
"I saw Blue Lane Studios at the expo and started talking with them. Two days later, they called me to assist at a wedding. They've kind of taken me under their wing and let me learn from them," she said.
She also serves at the photography editor for her school yearbook and recently received three awards from the Southern Interscholastic Press Association in South Carolina for her work.
And she's done quite a bit of charity work in her short career including photographing the family of a Riverview girl with leukemia. As a result, she began a charitable project she calls Snaps of Sunshine in which she photographs children with cancer and their families free of charge.
Her favorite shoot, though, was taking photos of the Wright family, who adopted nine children.
Currently, she is donating 10 percent of her profits from photography to the Tim Tebow Foundation to help build a hospital in the Philippines and support children with cancer.
"I really admire Tim Teabow," she said. "I know I'm not making the most money right now, but I know the money I'm making is going to a good cause, even if it means waiting a little longer to buy a new lens."
Her mother, Maria Johnson, said her daughter demonstrated a creative side at an early age.
"She was 6 or 7 years old when she entered a coloring contest at Publix and won a Gameboy," said her mother. "Then, at age 7, she colored a turtle that was featured in the Greater Brandon Chamber of Commerce calendar. She just seemed to have a natural ability for art at an early age."
Her first museum exhibit was in the fifth grade. She had a painting hang in the Tampa Museum of Art.
The president of the Art Club at Bloomingdale High School for two years, Vazquez continues to pursue her love of drawing and painting.
"I like to use oil and my paintings usually have lots of swirls and color," Vazquez said. "They're whimsical and bright."
In 2009, she won a student art award from the Dali Museum for a tempera surrealistic painting she did of the Empire State Building and the Hollywood sign. More recently, she received a Congressional Art Competition award for a self-portrait in oil that hangs in the Polk Museum of Art.
"What was funny was I couldn't even attend the awards ceremony because I had booked my first wedding that day," said Vazquez. "Sometimes my art and photography clashes."
Just this week she received word that she had won the state PTSA Reflections Contest for one of her paintings, beating out student artists in 67 counties. Her painting will now go to national competition.
Vazquez feels her photography is a natural extension of her artwork.
"Sometimes I shoot in color, other times black and white," she said. "There are certain pictures that look so dramatic in black and white."
Vazquez is also learning the art of marketing herself. In addition to designing her own website for Alexis Marie Photography, she has a Facebook page with 1,200 fans.
But she says her parents are her biggest fans. She couldn't pursue her love of art and photography without their support.
"She so creative and such a hard worker," said her mother. "How can we let that go to waste?"