An Intimate Lens: Photographer Raven B. Varona Reflects On Her Mindful Work-Life Balance
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As much as Raven B. Varona (@ravieb) dedicates ample hours to her craft, from shooting A-listers like JAY-Z and Damson Idris to presenting her debut And The B Is For exhibit in late 2020, the photographer also carves out plenty of time to luxuriate in self-care.
The photographer’s self-portrait. PHOTO BY RAVEN B. VARONA
When did you initially begin either researching wellness practices or figuring out that's something that you need to prioritize? And what was the reason behind it?
Yeah, I mean, I definitely feel like my journey with wellness has probably grown a lot in the last two to three years. I would say very much so in the pandemic, but prior to that, like, you know, I would get facials or I would try to stay consistent with working out, and I'd have a skincare routine. So I would say very basic self-care. But then in the pandemic, I moved to LA, I took up hiking, and I started meditating. Once my world kind of stood still for a little while, and as I was getting older, I started to really realize it was a necessity just for my mental health. I've always struggled with being consistent with working out, or having a set schedule, or making time for myself. Then suddenly when we had all this time for ourselves, I started to feel like what are the things that truly like, make me feel better, make me feel stronger, and just kind of align me better. So I feel like in the last few years I've kind of had a super shift. I started hiking, I started meditating, I started therapy. I started working out consistently three days a week. I've changed my skincare routine, I eat differently, I drink more water. So I think all of those things have aided me because I realized not feeling my best was also conflicting with my creativity.
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Now that you're back to having a busier schedule, how do you maintain your routine while juggling your work priorities?
Oh, yeah, I actually was just telling my best friend that I think all of us, as a whole, have to give ourselves some grace. I think that our world has shifted so much in the pandemic. We kind of created our own routines with health and wellness, I felt like I was thinner, and that I had more time to do all these activities. I could bike 10 miles in a day, hike, and have time because for the first four to five months in 2020 I didn't work at all. And then it gradually started picking up little by little. But when we first got back in the swing, with the world opening back up, I felt a lot of anxiety because I didn't have time to maintain that routine. I stopped meditating as much or I couldn't work out and hike all the time because I'm constantly traveling. So at first, I was really frustrated and I do feel like it was messing with my mental health. So I kind of took a break and gave myself grace to reevaluate what my wellness schedule can be. So for me, it's like, okay, I wake up a little earlier to make sure I can do the things I want to do. Or I carve out a day sometimes I'm like “listen, I can't do any work, I need to just do this for me” or I'm not going to be happy. I think that wellness can mean anything, right? I think for me sometimes it's like having my laundry done, having my house cleaned, being in a comfortable space so that I can relax, and unwind so that things feel easier. I guess that my headline is that I had to reevaluate my time once the world opened up to still make time for it, because I realized how important it was to me.
Have you seen these practices benefit your work/life schedule?
Oh, absolutely. I sleep better, I wake up earlier, I'm more productive. I feel like I'm more creative. I feel like so many ideas come to me when I'm practicing wellness. Whether I'm outdoors or I'm carving out time to get a foot massage. But that time of sitting there sometimes can just spark new ideas for me because my brain is kind of turned off. I'm not thinking about anything but relaxing, which kind of leads me to be creative. I think that a lot of times when you're growing, you're constantly trying to be creative and you're not shutting your body down to relax. It kind of puts a strain on your creativity.
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Are there any relaxing spots that you frequent in Los Angeles?
I definitely like Griffith Park, it’s my main hike. I like to rollerblade and bike ride along the beach. I recommend just going to your local Thai massage parlor. I just prefer them over fancy hotel spas. I think they're better and more cost-effective. So I tend to go to Hollywood or Koreatown for Thai massages. I go to the FACEGYM in West Hollywood. I always recommend people to try out the Ole Henrikson Spa.
You're also a new plant mom.
I had a plant in 2020, but I don't think I was in the best headspace because it did not survive. So when I moved, I really wanted to invest in them. I really do feel like there's a direct connection between being happy and your plants being healthy. I feel like they absorb your energy and you have to know them in the same way you have to know yourself. So being attentive to my plants definitely helps with my routine. And also it makes me happy to see growth.
You prioritize having close friends and family around. Can you speak to how your inner circle helps keep you grounded?
I'm really blessed and thankful for them. For the most part, I've had the same friends for over 20 years. And I have a really solid group of adult friends I've made in the last six years. So all of my friendships, for the most part, are really long-standing. They allow me to be vulnerable, they give constructive criticism, they're supportive, and they're loving. We show each other grace. Sometimes building a community can feel forced. I've been really lucky because I grew up in the same neighborhood my whole life, so the community was really organic. So having the same level of shared experience and respect for each other's work, to me, is what really builds community as well as surrounding yourself with people that make you feel safe, heard, and understood. I don't mean just a repost on social media. Support to me is picking up the phone, going over ideas, listening, and just being there. Making somebody a meal because that's what they need is really important.
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“SUPPORT TO ME IS PICKING UP THE PHONE, GOING OVER IDEAS, LISTENING AND JUST BEING THERE. MAKING SOMEBODY A MEAL BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT THEY NEED IS REALLY IMPORTANT.” –RAVEN B . VARONA
Your work also reflects a safe space as well, and there’s even more vulnerability to it now.
I definitely think it's a progression and an evolution. I really admire how people are vulnerable in front of the camera and the intimacy of photographing someone you don't know, but also photographing someone who you know and being able to document them as their real selves. I think it's just growing because my perspective is growing. I care more about the purpose of the photo and telling the story. But over time I'm constantly like, ‘What is the story I'm trying to tell with this one picture? What do I want people to feel when they see it?’ When I started to lean into that more so than caring about who was in the photo or getting it on the internet, it became more intentional, for sure.
Looking at your portraits with people like Adele and Big Sean, I felt like I was there in the moment.
I like to bring a feminine perspective. Sometimes I feel like that's what's lacking. Big Sean is big on wellness and health, so being able to document his space was really cool. Shooting Adele is obviously not only inspiring to me, but it challenges me because, on the highest level, she's constantly able to express her vulnerability in herself. Her music is so relatable to me, it's definitely gotten me through countless breakups and stuff throughout my life. So being able to document her throughout this album’s journey is really special because it's really honest and I wanted my photos to reflect that. Natalia Bryant was great because it was her first cover ever, and I thought it was just so special. To just be able to shoot her first cover [for Teen Vogue's September 2021 issue]. In 10 years, we can look back and be like, Oh, we did this, we did this here and we can see how she has evolved. She's just kind of like a breath of fresh air and she's so positive, warm, and welcoming. It made the shoot really great. I'm really blessed with the people I've been able to photograph because I've never really had a bad experience. But I definitely think when people let you into their own personal space and show you how they create, you can be a fly on the wall. It's a once-in-a-lifetime [experience]. Sometimes I can't believe it.