"I was quite passionate," said Garza-Cuen, a professional photographer and art teacher at University of Nevada, Reno. "I was always photographing something. It really started to become a sort of diary for me."
Since then, the Seattle native and avid backpack traveler has lived abroad for more than 15 years, documenting trips from behind her lens.
Bouncing around from Latin America to Cairo and eventually to London, Garza-Cuen has now settled in Nevada and has opened her first solo exhibition, "Otel" slated to last until Nov. 14 at the Sierra Arts Gallery at 17 S. Virginia St. in Reno.
"When you're not from a place, you're senses are heightened," Garza-Cuen said of her approach to "Otel." "I want to explore my own country from a traveler's eye."
"Otel" documents the often overlooked beauty of weekly and monthly hotels/motels, focusing exclusively on the Fourth Street motel district of Reno. Featured photographs depict the inhabitants and small, exceptional nuances of this otherwise ordinarally dismissed area, Garza-Cuen said.
"The feeling of a hotel/motel, there is a nostalgia in it," Garza-Cuen said, referring to the retro, vintage feeling of the Fourth Street motel district. "And for every person living there, there is a reason why they are there. They all represent a part of society that is marginalized. And we often just don't open the door to see what's behind it."
So the door cracked opened and when it didn’t open, Garza-Cuen kept knocking.
"Of course, most of them (the motel inhabitants) don't want that," Garza-Cuen said, mentioning that there was some hositlity in the process. "They've been treated poorly in the past and they have good reason to not trust."
Eventually getting to spend time with inhabitants and learning where they came from, Garza-Cuen said she became immediately fascinated by the question of "What happens to these people?"
"In a way, I think that our society files them away," Garza-Cuen said, echoing a theme that recurs in systematic order in her display. "There are the drug addicts, but there are also people that call that home. And they are alienated and somewhat forgotten. But these people have strength and dignity, too."
Like many of her other projects, Garza-Cuen said she approached the series by taking what she calls "sketch photographs" much like a painter would do with quick drawings.
"I looked for little glimmerings of light," Garza-Cuen said, referring to the attention to light details in several of her tripdics. "They are little bits of hope, they make you rise above. It's finding the beauty and excellence from decay and decadence."
Garza-Cuen's focus on such details suggests an interesting social commentary, which she said hopes poses questions to her viewers and encourages them to look closer at things in life.
"These are elements of a society that I find interesting," Garza-Cuen said. "And I'm also taking responsibility for the world in which I live. I want to learn something about my society. It's a constant curiosity."
For more information about Garza-Cuen's work, visit her Web site at www.garza-cuen.com.
An artist reception will be held Friday from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Sierra Arts Gallery.