Creativity has always been an important part of Vanessa Rivera’s life. But as a busy mother of three in the small town of Paris in southern California, the 29-year-old blogger didn’t always have the time or the opportunity to pursue her desire for self-expression.
That all changed two years ago, when she happened to click on an Instagram hashtag and began exploring the world of photography, capturing the adventures – both real and imaginary – that she embarks on with her kids, Adyline, Xander and Indie.
What started as fun daily photoshoots for Vanessa and her children has quickly grown to become a family business, as they collaborate with brands to produce incredibly realistic, surreal compositions. We caught up with Vanessa to find out how her life has changed over the last couple of years, how she deals with the challenge of posing her young models, and how much work goes into creating these fantastical images.
When did you first begin to consider yourself a photographer and artist? How did you get your start?
I started about two years ago now when my youngest was born. We were going through a really hard time financially and I couldn’t afford to get his newborn shots. I was really bummed out and I happened to accidentally click on a hashtag on Instagram. And I had no idea what hashtags were or that there was even a way to connect with people from all over the world through Instagram. I was really new to it.
It kind of opened the door to this whole community of Insta-moms and lifestyle photography. I really got inspired by these moms who were kind of just doing it on their own. And I was so used to the whole concept that you have to go to a professional photographer to get a photoshoot done with your kids. I never really thought about actually just capturing it myself.
I had zero experience in photography. I just had my phone and I kind of just started replicating what these moms were doing. I’ve always had a little creative bone in me. I actually went to school for fashion design and I’ve always been kind of creative and loved art and drawing. I started to play around with taking photos on the floor with the kids. It turned into my little Magic Floor series and people really liked it.
Once I started to see that people liked that, and I was having a lot of fun with it and so were the kids, I kind of started to push the bar a little bit more. I didn’t have any experience in Photoshop, either, but my husband used to be a web developer and he had a little bit of experience with Photoshop, so he would help me. I just started to play around with simple edits and it snowballed from there.
I started to teach myself more about photography. I got myself a real camera and started to really learn about Photoshop, editing and videography. And over the past two years, it just evolved.
What artists or photographers do you most admire? And how has their work influenced your own?
Obviously, my style has evolved a lot from what I originally started with. If you look back at our feed, it used to be very lifestyle with no editing involved. At the time, I think the people that I was most inspired by were accounts like Meg Loeks, she was definitely one of my favorite photographers. And I used to look at other accounts that are really popular, like Mary Lauren and Tayler Golden.
I used to just love the whole lifestyle of photography – capturing real moments versus studio photos. As time progressed and I started to step into more of the graphic design kind of world, I started to browse Pinterest and whatnot and some artists that really inspired me from the get-go were people like Joel Robison. I used to see him all the time on Pinterest and now we’re friends, which is really cool. Rosie Hardy is another big one, too. Those were the ones that really stuck out to me from the beginning. I was just mind-blown by the surrealism and the conceptual photography that they did.
Your imagination seems endless – how do you come up with the concepts for all these creative images?
It honestly just varies. When we’re doing a personal post, we usually get inspiration from daily life. For example, we were watching The Avengers the other day and we saw Dr. Strange doing his little thing and we were like, ”Oh my gosh, concept – let’s do that.”
And then there are other times when we kind of sit down, look at what’s going on in our life right now. What have we seen the kids do when they’re playing, or what has Adyline said while she’s telling a story or she’s make-believing? We pick little things from that and it kind of evolves.
I think the biggest source of inspiration is definitely the kids and what we imagine them to want to do if they had magic.
What is the most difficult part of working with children? How do you get them to respond to your direction?
You know, we get asked that a lot and it’s one of those things where some days are good and some days are bad. If it’s a personal photo that we’re just doing for ourselves, they usually go a lot more smoothly than when it’s something sponsored, for a brand or whatnot, because you have deadlines – you have to get it done in a certain time and those ones are more difficult when the kids don’t cooperate.
What we’ve learned, though, is just patience and really adapting to the situation. A lot of people think that we just put the camera up and we’re like, “Do this,” and they’ll do it. No. Not at all. It really just involves a lot of communication with them, trying to get them to role play and kind of take part in the actual storyline of the photo, versus just saying, “Can you pose this way?”
A lot of it is just accepting a loss in the moment and making it work later. And a lot of bribery, too – I’ll openly admit it. A lot of treats, a lot of, “You can watch a movie after.” I mean, when you’re working with kids, you kind of have no choice – you’re working around them.
The colors in your images are often soft and muted – how does this stylistic choice impact your work? Why not use bolder, more vibrant shades?
Our color palette is something that we constantly evaluate. Obviously, I look at other artists and think, “Gosh, maybe we’re doing it wrong, or maybe we should change it up a little bit.” But what I’ve learned over time is to just let the photo be itself. There are photos we’ve done that are very bright and have a big pop of color, and there are other photos where it’s very moody and it’s very soft.
I think it just depends on the mood that we’re trying to convey in the image. If we want it to be a happy, funny kind of photo, we’ll use brighter colors and we’ll lighten up the image. But if we’re trying to convey something dreamy, something more surreal, then we’ll do a more muted color.
On your blog, you share poetry along with your images. What is the connection between writing and photography for you? How do you choose which words go with which photograph?
I’ve always loved writing – I actually went to school, after fashion, to be an English teacher. And I’ve always liked poetry. Writing has always been my first love, to be honest, because I’ve been doing it before all of this. But this has taken so much time out of my life now because it’s become my business and part of our life, so I don’t get a lot of time to write anymore.
I used to challenge myself and say, “I’m going to do a Magic Floor photo. And I’ll take the photo, whatever the concept is, and build a poem around it.” It’s just a way for me to give myself the time to sit there and do something that I love.
Do you have any particular habits that are a part of how you begin your creative process?
I would say that a lot of it is free-form, but it always begins with coming up with the story. What are we trying to convey? How do we bring that to life? Who are we going to use? Where are we going to take it? We sketch it first, then take the photo and edit it. Then we can see if it works or if it doesn’t.
There are times when we have a concept in mind and it doesn’t work out and we trash it, or we completely change it. It’s definitely a lot of just going with the wave.
What do you do when you hit a wall during your creative process?
Usually, we take a moment to ourselves, you know, just close the computer and step away from it. I think sometimes you can get really wrapped up in a project and you can’t see the image clearly because you’re just so focused on what’s not working. Taking yourself away from that, giving yourself a break – visually and mentally – and then coming back to it with a little bit more enthusiasm and a bit of a fresher mind might make you see things that you didn’t see before. And it might help you see solutions to the problems that you couldn’t find before.
How much time do you spend on one photo?
We don’t spend anything less than 15 to 20 hours on a photo. It’s ridiculous. We work so hard at making sure the details are there, that it looks real. When you’re an artist, you’re your own worst critic. So, we’re really hard on ourselves when we’re working on these and I think that adds time because we’re trying to perfect it. There are times when we’ll literally spend three hours on the tiniest little detail. And we know people probably won’t notice or even care, but I think it’s just an artist kind of thing.
And how do you know when an image is ‘done’?
Honestly, we never say that. It’s always been more of like a, “Okay, let’s just pull the trigger on this, because I’m over it,” kind of thing. And even after the photo is live, we’ll sometimes sit there and think how we should have done things differently. But, you know, in real life, you can’t spend months on a photo – I probably would, if I could.
You’re obviously very skilled in the art of photo manipulation – how did you develop your technique? What was the biggest challenge for you?
A lot of it involved me having to sit for hours and watching tutorials on YouTube, trying to mimic what they’re doing. It’s just trial and error, and having the drive to sit there and say, “I’m going to learn this,” because that’s the hardest part. A lot of people say, “I want to learn to do what you’re doing,” but it’s not a matter of just sitting down and learning it in a few hours – it takes so much time, and it takes so much patience and practice.
Even now, I think, we’re constantly evolving our technique. We learn something new every day when it comes to how we edit, the tools we use and the different things we do in Photoshop.
What advice would you give to photographers who are just starting out in this genre?
My biggest piece of advice to people is just not being afraid to take risks – I think that’s kind of our motto. When I started, I was doing what everyone else was doing, but then one day I said, “Let me take a risk and do something different.” And it paid off.
It was scary because maybe people won’t react to it well or maybe you won’t do it well. But don’t be afraid to do something different, and don’t be afraid to fail. There’s been so many times when we’ve failed at photos. We’ve archived a lot of photos, but that’s okay, because it was a learning experience. Now, we can look back at them and see what we did wrong and how we can improve. But you won’t ever be able to do that if you don’t allow yourself to just take a risk. You’re always going to learn something, regardless.
What book would you recommend any creative person read?
If I’m having a creative block or anything like that, I always look at Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein books. I like to just flip through the pages and read through them. They draw so much inspiration to me. The way the characters are balancing things – there’s just something about them that gets my brain going.
What are you focusing on right now, in your work and photography?
We want to push ourselves to develop. We want to create a series that revolves around superhero kids, and my ultimate goal for that would be to create an actual book. Make a story, almost like a comic book series, with superheroes and superpowers and these kids with this magic talent in them. And hopefully, one day, turn it into an actual book series – but with our photos.
We’re also selling our house and all our stuff, and we’re going to be traveling abroad. Our biggest goal for that is to take these images to other places, creating all over the world. That’s almost our weakness right now – when it comes to outdoor photography, we often feel that’s not our strong point. We’re really used to just being indoors. And so, our biggest challenge for this year is to get out there and create these images in different places all over the world.
How do you hope your work impacts viewers? What do you aim to express through your photography?
I really love it when I get messages that say, “Your photos make me smile,” or “Your photos make me so happy.” We just want to continue that. We want to make people smile, we want to make people laugh, and we really want people to just not forget their childhood imagination. Nowadays, kids forget how to make-believe – you have technology and tablets and stuff like that, and it’s hard to see kids just sit and play and kind of build a world around something so simple.
We want to bring that back by having these images portray those moments, where kids are playing with things like marbles or something that kids don’t really do anymore – just keeping that childhood imagination alive.
As a team, the Rivera family works hard to create dynamic, inspiring images that spark the viewer’s creativity, taking them back in time to a youth full of child-like magic and wonder.
Their photography can be seen on Instagram, and their YouTube channel gives a bit more insight into the creative process that goes on behind the scenes as Vanessa edits her photographs to perfection.