Rafael Pavarotti Shoots to Thrill

Rafael Pavarotti is a trip.

He grew up surrounded by shamans and healers and witches, on the fringes of the Amazonian rainforest where, he says, “The same life that is given to the mushroom is the same life that is given to the towering 100-year-old tree.” His grandmother was his guiding light. “The world is ready for you,” she told him when he left home at 16. “But protect yourself. Only allow people you really trust to see your eyes.”

Raf listened to his grandma. When he’s in public, he’s usually hidden behind huge impenetrable shades. “They’ve become part of my look,” he acknowledges, “but I do use sunglasses to protect myself, because I think my eyes say too much.” It’s a curious notion for a photographer to take on board so wholeheartedly. True, when he removes the eyewear, Pavarotti does undergo a persona shift from iceman to vulnerable cherub, but a photographer’s eyes are their greatest asset. “The camera itself is nothing without someone’s eyes in there. If there is nobody there, the camera is useless.”

His sage grandma called it a bridge to communicate with other people. Which means it’s equally perverse for Pavarotti to claim he doesn’t even look through the lens anymore when he’s shooting. “The perspective is so limited,” he says. “I like to see everything.” He also likes loud music and a set that’s usually dark enough that the model can’t see him if he’s behind the camera. So he’d rather be out front directing, engaging, moving, while his first assistant manages the tech.

“I almost become like the whole vision of everything. I like to go there and adjust clothes, change the hair, of course always making sure that everyone is comfortable.” Which is important when you have a full complement of fashion egos at your back. “That’s why I can say that I work with the best people, because they really celebrate what collaboration is about. Everyone comes with such a powerful energy and there is no ego. The hairdresser’s not gonna be mad if I step into the picture and change something.”

That’s the attitude you need when you work with a talent like Rihanna. The latest feather in Pavarotti’s plume-laden cap is a special stand-alone issue of Katie Grand’s Perfect Magazine, which called on the Bahamian pop-goddess to transform yet again in the name of fearless self-realisation. It was an enormous planning enterprise on the part of everyone involved, all of it aimed at a 4pm start on the day of the actual shoot. Rihanna arrived at 11pm. (There is a story circulating — possibly apocryphal — that she arrived at her baby son’s birthday party at 3.30 in the morning). She surely has only one rival in the canon of (non)timekeepers. Elizabeth “I may be late, but I’m Liz!” Taylor was always worth the wait. And Rihanna is clearly blessed with the same degree of time-devouring charisma.

Rihanna on the latest cover of Perfect Magazine.
Rihanna by Rafael Pavarotti for a special issue of Perfect Magazine. (Perfect Magazine)

“Because you know Rihanna is imprevisível… how can I say this word in English?… unpredictable,” Pavarotti muses in the caring, sharing spirit you imagine must have been sorely tested by all that planning shot to hell. The beautiful sets, the 15 hair configurations, the eight makeup looks all worked on for weeks before had to be distilled into one backdrop, three hairstyles and two or three faces for a shoot that eventually began at 2am. “We had two or three hours to do the whole story,” Pavarotti explains. “It would have been quite magical if we could do everything, but I had to be quick in making decisions for everybody and make it like, OK, we’re gonna focus on Rihanna. We’re gonna focus on the styling and the beauty. It was such a huge amount of work for everyone, but they understood that was the direction we had to take, that it didn’t feel heavy, or feel that we were diminishing anyone’s effort.”

There isn’t a hint of diminishment in the gorgeous excess of the finished product. Rihanna as we’ve never seen her? Isn’t that always her way? As Pavarotti says, “She will always come up with something completely unseen, completely new. She’s a real actress, you give her the script and she’ll make your script shine.” This time, the story he concocted with Katie Grand and Rihanna’s styling genius Jahleel Weaver was an extravagant celebration of subcultures: New York club kids, the Jamaican ballroom scene, Afro-futurism, but, above all, punk, embodied by people Rihanna found inspiring, from Siouxsie Sioux and Nina Hagen to Grace Jones, punk socialite Princess Gloria TNT and club kid Waltpaper. (She has far-ranging tastes, as I found out in my very first conversation with her years ago when she told me her favourite band was Slipknot).

Pavarotti is still fizzing from the experience. “At the end of the day, Rihanna will show up and she will give you everything, and then it doesn’t matter if it’s one hour or two hours because we ended up with the perfect story, the perfect image, the perfect amount of everything… not less, not more, just the perfect amount. It’s fascinating because she keeps experimenting herself. She keeps putting herself in places that are completely unknown for her. She doesn’t stay in a comfortable place. She doesn’t care.”

And perhaps that’s been his experience of life too. “I don’t consider myself only as a photographer,” says Pavarotti as he reflects on the 15 years since he quit Belém, Brazil for the wider world, “because to be only a photographer doesn’t give me all the possibilities that I love to be part of. When I started my career, I couldn’t afford to have a team. So I was responsible for the styling. I was producing, I was editing, I was doing the makeup, the hair, the movement direction. I was doing the creative direction. I was doing everything, and all this experience was so important for me when I stepped into the big market. I had a sense of everything.”

Rafael Pavarotti on set with Rihanna for a special issue of Perfect Magazine.
Rafael Pavarotti on set with Rihanna for a special issue of Perfect Magazine. (Perfect Magazine)

But now everything has got much, much bigger for Pavarotti. He calls the last 15 years a warm-up. “I’m 31, I feel more mature, more connected with myself. I don’t let people come and mess up my mental health. I’ve been learning so much how not to let those external things affect my life. We are living in a society that is quite overwhelming in so many ways, and I think it’s a very important time for us to properly celebrate what we bring to the world, what we give to people. This is my life. I’m giving everything to inspiring the new generation, to make this world a little bit better because it’s just so fucked up right now.”

Two years ago, when we last talked, Pavarotti and the multi-hyphenate Ib Kamara had made their way to the pinnacle of a transformative pyramid in the fashion industry. Raf’s photos of Ib’s styling helped create a new, energetic, wildly seductive vocabulary for fashion. A witch in the Amazon had predicted Pavarotti would “meet his mirror,” and so he did after Kamara saw his work for Vogue Brasil and tracked him down through Instagram. They communicated through Google Translate. And when Kamara came to the Amazon, they made stories of the places and people that Pavarotti loved. “After 12 years of working in fashion, I’d learned to never look to my own story,” says Pavarotti. But Kamara had already been bringing his own roots into his work and the partnership opened Pavarotti’s eyes. He compares their coming together to a Megazord. “It was literally like the century beginning. There was the pandemic, there was George Floyd, the world was begging for a change. And we arrived at the same time.

In Brazil, I tried for years to put a black girl on a cover. I never had success. Never! And then we said to each other, ‘Hey, this is the moment to really push for this change,’ and we were just seeing our dreams come true, without resistance, because at that moment, there was nobody else there to say, ‘Don’t do this, don’t use that.’ Me and Ib were leading our own space and we were gonna say how things happen there, without fear. People were suddenly saying there’s a lot of Black photographers, everyone’s new. But they weren’t new. They’d been around for such a long time — stylists, editors, makeup artists, models — but everyone was in the shadows. Nobody had the opportunity, or the space to shine. And now, look how beautiful. We have to celebrate this because it is huge. I consider myself this little in this change [he pinches his fingers together] and to be this little for me, it’s more than enough, because I understand the power of community. You see everyone doing incredible campaigns, shows, performances, exhibitions, books.”

Lately, Pavarotti has been working in London with the Brazilian stylist George Krakowiak, who he describes as his partner in crime in the first decade of his career. They’ve just made a story for Acne Paper which is a celebration of the Brazilian concept of gambiarra, a way of being creative with very few resources. Playing with what you have, living within means, in other words. Again, it’s Pavarotti connecting with his past. “My whole research with George was here we are at the end of the world, we don’t have access to haute couture, we don’t have access to anything but we are full of life. We want to show what we can do, so let’s use what we have.” Gambiarra sounds like an essentially humble idea, which ties in with Pavarotti’s evolving sense of his environment. “The problem with humanity is over-self-importance,” he suggests. It’s fashion’s problem too. He sees it all the time. “I’m like, calm down girl, it doesn’t work like that. And I’m saying that because I grew up in the forest.”

There comes a point in our conversation when it’s best to let Pavarotti talk without interruption. That little cigarette he’s been nursing is unleashing a stream of meditative free-association. In February, he was on a seven-day shoot for H&M in Brazil. On his day off, he flew to Belém. His dad picked him up at 11 in the morning and by the time they reached the family home, grandma was laying the table for lunch. When he saw her, he dissolved into tears. So many memories. Once upon a time, he’d nap on the couch after lunch while she ran her fingers through his hair.

It wasn’t just home and family Pavarotti left at 16. It was also school and all his friends. Their love gave him the confidence to go, and it’s the same thing that keeps him grounded in a world that couldn’t be more different from the one he grew up in. “For me to step into this fashion world, I think I only survived because of what I brought with me. It will last forever like a fortress of love and affection.”

“Underneath, we are all chasing the same thing.”

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