Since Raven B. Varona went full-time in photography eight years ago, she has had a front-row seat to some of pop culture’s biggest moments, an honor she takes seriously, seeing herself as a historian of these intimate, close-up captures with important figures in the zeitgeist. Scrolling through her vibrant portfolio of stop-you-in-your-tracks portraits showcases long-term creative partnerships with many of her subjects, from Future and Beyoncé to Adele, whom she worked alongside for every moment of the singer’s Las Vegas residency. “Being in front of the camera is vulnerable. You are under big lights. It’s up close. The biggest thing for me is human connection,” she says. “I want people on my set to feel comfortable, to feel good, and to feel seen. I love people and watching how they experience the world, especially in moments of joy.”
The slogan for her work is “I know your best side.” It’s also the inspiration for her nonprofit, the Best Side Foundation, which she started at the beginning of this year after taking school pictures at a Brooklyn school that couldn’t afford it. That inspiring experience for Raven turned into more school-picture-day takeovers at Title I schools and developing other opportunities to bring creative programming and hands-on experience to low-income youth.
The Bronx, where Raven grew up, is a constant inspiration in her work — as is her mother. Raven’s late mother gave her just the letter B as her middle name. It’s become a bit of a guiding light. “It feels like my everlasting personal brand. Now I am wondering what the volume two of the B is? First, it’s felt like Bronx. Is it the Bronx again? Is it being Black? My mom literally just gave me a middle initial, so it feels like I can constantly redefine what it means.”
Everything always comes back to my love of the Bronx, my upbringing, my relationship with my mom.
What do you hope your subjects feel during your creative process?
When I first started out, I spent a lot of time thinking, What’s my niche? What do I want to be known for? It hindered me in a way. I had all these introspective conversations with myself, and the one thing that kept coming up for me was, I just want people to feel comfortable. I want my photos to feel personal and intimate. When someone sees a photo I took, I want them to feel like I must have known the subject really well.
Photography is collaborative. You are bringing 50 percent, and I am bringing 50 percent. That’s when the best work is created. I hope people look back at photos I have taken years later and feel like I captured their essence.
Owning and sharing our stories and putting them out into the world is an important tenet of our work. It seems like you put your story out into the world so generously and wholeheartedly. Why is sharing your story important to you?
I like to share stories because I think that’s the only way you can learn. We’re complex, we’re flawed, and we make mistakes, and I think if you lead with vulnerability, it helps people. No one else will ever have my same blueprint, and I don’t want anyone to follow my blueprint, but I do feel like sharing my vulnerabilities and expressing myself can be an education for others.
You’ve talked about showing up to the camera pit to shoot a music show early in your career and being surrounded by all white guys in cargo shorts. Has the industry changed at all since you started?
From when I started, it’s night and day. Now there are so many Black photographers, so many Black women photographers, and so many more people of color in the industry. There is so much more inclusivity. People would ask me early in my career who my mentors and inspirations were. I didn’t have anyone that looked like me. I hope that when I see up-and-coming photographers, they will ask me questions. If I have the time, I will give it to them because I didn’t have that.
The Best Side Foundation’s mission is to inspire, expose, and foster the development of low-income youth in the field of photography through creative programming and hands-on experiences. What have you learned or what has surprised you on set with the students?
Best Side is probably the most important thing for myself right now, and for other people. In the pandemic, I was struggling with figuring out what my purpose was in life. I turned 30 during that time and felt like I had spent the last decade of my life building a brand, working with celebrities, and getting my work out there to build a name for myself. But then I started thinking about who I want to be in the next decade.
I realized that everything always comes back to my love of the Bronx, my upbringing, my relationship with my mom, growing up poor, and just missing representation I didn’t have. I love kids and feel like they are the foundation of our society and feel like they and their education aren’t being prioritized. So I started thinking about how I could help these kids who don’t have the luxury of exploring creativity.
We are raising money now and hope that Best Side grows into other initiatives, like mentoring and teaching kids how to do photography. Being around these kids is so inspiring and heart-filling. They are so pure and innocent. Those school years are so formative. We are all still those kids at that age inside.
What are you feeling currently inspired by?
Continuing to work and find peace. I lost my mom in November of 2022. We lived together in the same one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx for 27 years. It was just us. It really shook up my world, and it changed me in a way that I don’t think anything else could have. But I also have this newfound purpose and sense of being on the pursuit of happiness. My new inspiration is, How do I live out her legacy? What would she want me to do? Life is short. How can I do everything that I want to do?
I hope people look back at photos I have taken years later and feel like I captured their essence.