Rafael Pavarotti uses fashion and abstract symbolism to celebrate black and indigenous culture
Rafael Pavarotti was born in Brazil in 1993, in a small village deep in the Amazon Rainforest. Growing up there, amongst the vastness of all that nature, he says, shaped the ways in which he relates to life, to other people and the way in which he makes pictures too. His first encounters with photography were capturing people around him with his father’s camera from the age of 12. His friends would chip in and help him buy film and he’d document their evenings, hanging out at local beaches and in abandoned buildings near their homes. Since those humble beginnings, he has travelled and photographed in Brazil and beyond to New York and Sri Lanka, but the overarching themes of his work today still encompass childhood and adulthood, he says, “and growing up in an indigenous territory and living in metropoles later in life,” has all played its part in developing this vision.
Pavarotti often uses his fashion and editorial work as a prism through which to explore or make a comment on social and cultural issues, believing that “the abundance of ways to show and tell through fashion makes it an amazing medium, not only to ask questions but also to offer answers.” Previous projects have seen him shoot models wrapped in swathes of shredded plastic in order to highlight how it is suffocating our oceans, ultimately to draw attention to the socio-political issues affecting his home. “The celebration of Black and indigenous experience specifically will always be a part of my work, because it’s also a part of me. As an Afro-Indigenous Brazilian photographer, my existence and work are already political,” he says, adding that the possibilities fashion photography offers him to talk about everything, from politics to utopias to history, and make it accessible, is what makes him appreciate it so much. “With just one photo you can open up a whole history, or tell a whole story through different colours, styling and mediums,” he says.
Using a mix of both analogue and digital photography, his work is richly layered in a palette of deep scarlets and oranges, blacks and blues, often taking the form of bold studio shots, darkroom experiments and collages sketched upon or layered with text.
After 10 years of living away, Pavarotti returned to his Amazonian homeland for a recent body of work – a collaboration with stylist and i-D’s fashion editor-at-large Ib Kamara. The two connected through Instagram and bonded over a shared passion for celebrating and illuminating Black and radicalised bodies through fashion and image. Eventually, they met in Belém, a city on the edge of the Amazon Rainforest, to do a story together for i-D and Double Magazine. “Our plan was to take a deep dive into Black and indengous culture in Amazonia, the place I grew up, and my family and friends ended up helping us throughout the whole process,” Pavarotti says. The resulting images are rich in symbolism, and their models are stood in regal poses, clothed in rich red suits and embroidered jackets with painted faces. They wear intricate headpieces and hold flowers and foliage in front of their eyes. Pavarotti describes his visual style as bright and full of joy, reflecting his own vision of the place. “Light and textures set the tone for showing different narratives in the most beautiful ways,” he says.
After that, the pair travelled to Sierra Leone, Kamara’s homeland, to shoot another story. “It was a real journey through lives and histories,” Pavarotti remembers warmly. “It’s Ib’s home but I felt as welcomed there as in my own. We shared so many great and intense moments, and were able to translate all of that into imagery. It was like capturing real life art, there’s such an abundance of colour and joy and power in that place, and it radiated from everything we shot. All of those images are alive in our minds and in print now too.” This chapter of their collaboration was a significant one for both of them. “The experience was one of the most enriching I’ve ever had in my life,” Pavarotti says. “It doesn’t matter if the outcome is commercial, artistic or experimental, I try to only work with things that move me.”
To a certain degree, Pavarotti says he views everything he makes as a collaboration. “I tend to exchange ideas, moments and memories from my life and the others involved. I like to ask my models what sort of connections and associations come to mind up when they think about what we as a team are looking to invoke and achieve.” What really compels him to shoot a person or a moment, he says, is “an ambience of simplicity.” He always seeks an open space for exchange and dialogue, preferring, “stories of true selves, without the need for a whole performance.” Now based in London, Pavarotti is working on extending the work he has made in and around Amazonia into a narrative for a photobook. “It’s a project that remains close to both my heart and my home,” he says.