Photographer phenom: 'The fact that he's only 17 is remarkable'

Photographer phenom: 'The fact that he's only 17 is remarkable'
'The King of the Truffulla Trees' by Lijah Hanley (used with permission).

PORTLAND, Ore. - "I started shooting when I was 11 - just with my mom's old broken camera that got fixed."

Six years later, 17-year-old Lijah Hanley of Vancouver, Wash., is one of the Pacific Northwest's up and coming photographers. And that's not just us saying it - the folks at National Geographic have had their eye on him for years.

We first introduced you to Hanley back in March after we received a news tip that he had won a National Geographic photo contest for his piece titled No Boundaries. Hanley shot the photograph in The Dalles while he and his mother were stargazing. He set a timer on his camera, joined her on top of a Jeep and got the shot he wanted.

'No Boundaries,' the photo that earned Lijah Hanley the grand prize in this year's National Geographic Student Photo competition (used with permission).

Last year, Hanley won second place in the same photo contest. And when he was 13 years old, he was among a small group of kids selected to go to Peru to spend time with National Geographic photographers.

Photographer Lijah Hanley (right) talks with a woman who is admiring his work at World Cup Coffee & Tea in Portland, Ore., on Friday, August 16, 2013. Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman,

We caught up with Hanley at World Cup Coffee & Tea in Portland, Ore., (where he was exhibiting and selling some of his work) to find out how his latest National Geographic trip went. As you can imagine, it was another trip of a lifetime. Hanley joined a group of other youths who tagged along with National Geographic photographer Stephen Alvarez.

"We stayed in the dorms at London University, so we were kind of immersed in the culture and got to stay with other college kids and just go around the city and photograph," he said.

"It was awesome," he added. "I've mainly focused on landscape and wide angle scenes and while we were there we focused on photojournalism because that's kind of what National Geographic is about."

Hanley said he took around 7,000 photos during the 12 days he was in London.

"I think the hardest part about photographing people is that as soon as you point a camera at someone, they immediately stiffen up," he said. "You just don't get that natural reaction. So it was awesome getting to go with Stephen. We would go up to people and just have a conversation with them and actually get to know the people. And then you could get really natural portraits."

Hanley learned a lot during his trip and we'll likely see some different types of photos from him in the future. But his true passion remains the outdoors.

"I'm kind of an adventure seeker," he said. "I like going off the beaten path. The adventure is half the fun - stumbling on something is just a blast."

And although he loves to travel the world, he has a strong connection to home.

"The more and more I travel, the more I realize that we live in such a gorgeous place," he said. "The Northwest is incredible. And that's not to say that Peru or London or any of the other countries aren't incredible. But I'd love to spend a ton of time here just exploring and photographing."

"Falls Splendor" - vibrant fall color on display in the Portland Japanese Garden. Photo by Lijah Hanley (used with permission).

That should keep Ken Howell, the coffee shop's sales manager, happy. He's a huge fan of Hanley's photography and often displays the teenager's work for customers.

"This is some of the best art we get on our walls," Howell said. "It looks professional - like National Geographic art."

Howell said when people come to the coffee shop and see Hanley's work, a lot of them instantly love it. "It gets a lot of positive remarks," he said. And when they learn the photographer is just 17 years old, the story hooks them.

"The fact that he's only 17 is remarkable," Howell said. "The fact that he's won the National Geographic photo contest twice is remarkable. If you looked in my office, you would think it's a Lijah museum. Everything in there is either superheroes or his stuff."

Howell is probably going to need a bigger office at some point because Hanley is going to be around for a while - a long while. 

"If I can, I'm going to do this for the rest of my life, whether it be for National Geographic or whether it be selling at local markets or barely scraping by," Hanley said. "This is what I want to do."

If you're interested in seeing more of Hanley's work, check out his website. He'll also be exhibiting his work at the Puyallup Fair that's coming up in a few weeks.

'Ghost' by Lijah Hanley (used with permission).