Growing up in a small town in the middle of California, Kayla Varley knew she wanted to see more of the world and explore it through her photography. Ever since she was a child, photography was a creative escape to a whole different world. A world where moments are being captured forever. In this interview she talks about her decision to move to Los Angeles and how that influenced her work and the ability to grow as photographer.
I understand you have been taking pictures since you were a child. How did your photography evolve and who influenced it the most?
Yes, I have been making images since I was about 12/13 years old. When I was very young I played with disposable cameras but around the age of 13 I was given my first digital camera from my father. It was about 2.5 megapixels - not an amazing camera by any means but it opened up a world of possibility to me. My father saw that I was drawn to it, so I thank him for nurturing that in me and allowing me the space to create and be an artist even at a young age. I remember being inspired by a lot of portrait and fashion photographers. I loved Cass Bird, Sally Mann, Ryan McGinley, Richard Avedon. Back then I just shot self portraits all the time, photos of my friends, mostly documenting my everyday teenage life - not anything particularly ‘good’ - but it allowed me to express my emotions in a healthy way. I grew up in a small town in the middle of California with not a lot going on, so photography was an escape. I think my imagery has evolved into a much more refined, elevated aesthetic. The way I used to shoot was more about taking note of my own life, or documenting my surroundings. When I was younger I just saw things and wanted to capture what was happening. Now I set up circumstances that allow for an intentional creative space and energy.
Each of your photos showcase a different moment, people, and emotion. Do you feel this is the essence of photography?
I do think moments, people and emotions are a big part of photography, mine especially. But I’m sure it might be different for some people. I thrive off of emotion- It is the main thing that drives my work. My emotions inspire me to act, inspire me to connect. The moments I capture with my subjects I keep very dear to my heart. Some people leave and some stay, and sometimes the people aren’t necessarily in the image but I can feel their presence. I have such profound memories connected to certain images. Certain ones can make me teary eyed, some make me nostalgic for the past - those are the ones I love the most. I wonder if that happens for all photographers? I have the habit of looking back at old images and feeling such strong emotions, almost sad that I don’t have those moments in my life anymore, which then just makes me realize how important it is to stay focused on the now. Everything is so fleeting - I guess that is why I love to capture each moment, because I know it will be gone eventually.
When you are trying to catch the perfect moment with your camera, what is the first thing that goes through your mind?
The first thought in my brain is usually me hoping to myself that I don’t miss the shot. I always want to be ready for that perfect moment. If there is good energy with the subject and the timing is right, then I can lose myself in that moment, almost forget that I’m even shooting. It’s such a dreamlike state of mind. Sometimes moments happen naturally, and it’s all you can do to just be prepared. I think being open, being calm, allowing energy to flow, being grateful and just surrendering to the moments is important.
What inspires you to create? How does your creative process look like?
A lot inspires me, the everyday, the in between moments. Solitude inspires me. People and the connections we make together inspire me. When people are real and truly themselves - when they commit 100% to being in the moment, that inspires me to no end. And those are my favorite subjects, the people who trust and will let me be a goofball and just laugh with me. I always want people to feel comfortable, to relax, to just give themselves to the images. My creative process is all over the place. I am not a strict regimented artist. I am messy. I prefer to be alone when editing, I think it allows me the proper brain space to fully immerse myself. Before shooting I try to think about as much as possible. I research, try to wrap my head around whatever it is I want to do. A good starting point for me is finding the right person and location, and then from there just allowing the space to create I think is really all I need. After shooting I go through tremendous ups and downs with it all. Some days I hate the images I make and other days I’m in love with them. It is a roller coaster.
Since you also shoot portraits, you get to work with so many different people. What makes a perfect connection between photographers and models?
I love people. I love knowing what makes them tick. I think an absolute perfect connection is hard to find but when it’s right, it’s because we’ve both allowed ourselves to be open, to trusting each other, to doing that little dance together, knowing that it’s a process. When you can just be yourself - that’s the strongest connection.
You made series of photos showing women in their most intimate moments. How do feel about intimacy? Do you think women can be afraid of showing their true self, because nowadays we have such huge standards of how women should look and behave?
The moments I share with all of these inspiring women are moments I hold dear to my heart. I sometimes wonder how I got so lucky to be able to connect like I do, on such a personal level. I just want to hang out and share stories and give them space to be themselves. So often our society sends us a message that intimacy = sex. It doesn’t have to be that way. I feel a lot of people shy away from intimacy, but how can we connect to one another when we are so guarded? How can we ever grow? We have to be open to these moments, they are all there if you allow for the space. I don’t think women should be afraid of showing their true selves. When we have the space to be who we really are, and we are not afraid, we flourish. I hope that someday we can shape our society so that women don’t ever think twice about their appearance or behavior - we have the right to act however we please.
You are doing an amazing work with fashion and lifestyle photography. What drives you to work in these fields?
I think I have naturally gravitated toward lifestyle and fashion, but it wasn’t intentional. Lifestyle came to me naturally at a young age - I didn’t know that was what it was called - I just started shooting my friends and our adventures. I liked that I could preserve the moments that I cherished with the people that I loved. I never decided one day that I wanted to shoot fashion, but I started getting hired because of the connection that I was able to make with my subjects, the closeness I was able to achieve. I think my ability to transcend that barrier with people translated perfectly. Fashion has always felt elitist and inaccessible to me. I want to be able to showcase clothing and shapes and moments in a way that feels real and comfortable - available to anyone.
What was the most challenging thing for you since you started doing photography? What keeps you motivated to get out of bed and do your work every day?
I would say that the most challenging thing is being able to pick yourself up and find the courage to start shooting again after having a creative block. Moving through those periods when you just don’t feel like it, and you can’t seem to muster the ability to pick up your camera - those moments are tough. I always feel like I’ll never get it back again. What keeps me motivated is my desire to articulate my feelings and my desire to connect with people. I want to hear people’s struggles, their happy moments, I want to lend a shoulder when someone needs a place to let out their feelings. My photography is such an emotional process - I do not feel right unless I’m creating.
You worked with both analogue and digital photography. Which one do you prefer and why? What is the greatest thing about each?
Right now I prefer digital photography mostly because there are endless possibilities, I like that I can take it in any direction. I am passionate about editing - I enjoy the process of making selects, retouching, color correcting. To me it is also an art form. Film is emotional and has a completely different feel that I still love, but just simply can’t afford to do with tight deadlines and cost of film processing.
You were very young when you moved to Los Angeles to attend college. What advice would you give to your younger self?
If I could give myself any advice it would be to not rush the process. And to stop worrying! Moving at such a young age was fully terrifying and exhilarating at the same time - I was so happy to move to such a stimulating place and get out of my hometown. During the beginning it was pretty scary, not knowing how to break into photography, not knowing if I would succeed, but also not giving myself any other options. I was very impatient and didn’t always trust in the process. The college I went to was a really great private art school but I left after a year to pursue a freelance career because I couldn’t afford the tuition. I stayed in LA and found a few random jobs to help make ends meet. A lot of time was spent full of anxiety, wondering if I had made the right choice. Looking back, it was probably the best decision I could have made and I’m glad that I did because it allowed for tremendous growth and learning in a short period of time. It really forced me to grow up.
In one of your interviews you said that the most important thing in life is to stay true to who you are and never give up. Would you say this is the key to success and true happiness?
It must be different for everyone - I can’t say for sure what the universal key to success and happiness is! But I think if you want something bad enough, and put in the time and effort day after day, you can reach your goals. You have to work for it 24 hours a day. I still wake up and fall asleep at night thinking about photography and work, it consumes me. As far as happiness goes, it’s never going to be the same - happiness varies, at least it does for me. Staying true to yourself is so important. When we deny our needs, our wants and our desires, we stifle the beauty and creativity within. It is important to listen to your gut, to show up for yourself in every way possible. We were born with intuition for a reason - and I think when we listen to our natural human instincts, we can find happiness more easily.