Rafael Paiva Interview | Brazilian-born, L.A.-based Photographer

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Rafael Paiva brazilian


• “It was hard being away from my family for the first time, but it was a really important decision that I made because it changed my whole life.”

- Rafael on life away from home and introduction to photography 

Fortaleza – the capital of Ceará, located in Northeastern Brazil, and the hometown of Rafael Paiva.

As one of the biggest cities in Brazil, Fortaleza boasts beautiful beaches and a sprawling nightlife that attracts both tourists from Brazil and overseas.

Rafael steered away from the party scene in the beginning, and made the decision to appease his family by taking up the honor of becoming a lawyer. The biggest accomplishment a child can give to his family, would provide stability, financial advantages and a well-respected status.

For three and a half years, Rafael studied law at Universidade Regional do Cariri (URCA University), up until the point he started taking mental notes: This is not working for me. I feel miserable. What about me? My future? I’m going to have to deal with this forever.

Persuaded by friends who had taken an exciting new class, Rafael was introduced to Psychotherapy, fell in love with it, and changed majors. But a little over a year later, he came to the conclusion that school just wasn't for him.

His family grappled with his decision and couldn’t figure out why he wanted to stop. “They thought I was happy and ok with everything, but I really wasn’t. Until the day I exploded.”

With urgency, Rafael felt the need to leave town and try something new. His original mental notes circled back. It was time to take action and retreat to starting from square one. His next stop? São Paulo – the most populous city in Brazil.

“It was hard being away from my family for the first time, but it was a really important decision that I made because it changed my whole life.“

Courage, check. Preparation, not so much. So to make ends meet, he started working in retail and doing modeling on the side. This unplanned strategy turned into a blessing because not only did Rafael’s gigs position him in the fashion industry, but it also introduced him to photography.

rafael paiva brazilian

He liked it, but knew that in order to give it a lasting shot, he had to learn Photoshop. “I went to school for a few months and got my certificate. I was super happy to learn something new, and couldn’t wait to practice and to start doing photography.”

After two years in São Paulo, Rafael returned to his hometown to work for the family’s event venue company. Taking on managerial responsibilities, in addition to finding ways to spur the company’s growth, another new opportunity was awaiting in disguise. Seeing that customers always hired photographers for their events, Rafael was influenced to enroll in photography school. Afterwards, he started to capture events and gained positive feedback along the way.

• “It was really hard in the beginning. I see a lot of Americans treating people who aren’t from here in a different way.” 

- Rafael on his move to the U.S.

While success slowly grew, his thoughts of moving overseas transpired. “I always pictured myself being in Europe or some other country. It just happened that I had 2 friends who moved to L.A. One of them had a cosmetic’s company and needed some help.” Two years in, Rafael decided to leave Fortaleza for the U.S. – making him the first from his direct family to make the move.

Learning a new language

“I was really scared just because I thought about English being such a complicated language…I was freaked out being in a new place, with no one understanding me. I would take FOREVER to learn a new language.

Brazilian in America

At 24-years-old, Rafael set foot in L.A. and was determined to make it.

“It was really hard in the beginning. I see a lot of Americans treating people who aren’t from here in a different way. They thought just because I’m from Brazil, I was just another immigrant with no talent trying to make it in L.A. Thankfully, I was lucky to meet new friends, build a new 'family of choice' with people who believe in my potential and talent. I wouldn't be able to make it anywhere without their support.”

Rafael Paiva brazilian

For Rafael, it was new for him to be profiled as Hispanic. In L.A., people constantly approach him speaking Spanish, but unable to respond, annoyed describes these frequent encounters. This has become his new normal.


Chi Chi's Notes: If you’ve ever grouped Brazilians into the Hispanic ethnic group, cease and desist! They are not Hispanic.

Brazilians were colonized by Portugal, not Spain. As a result, Portuguese forcibly and eventually became Brazil’s national language.

And yes, the country is in fact located in Latin America, but also calling Brazilians Latino tends to place them under the Spanish-speaking umbrella.

As of today, the U.S. Census Bureau is working to make this categorization unambiguous. As we patiently wait, please remember that Brazilians are not Hispanic, so don’t expect them to speak Spanish.


Rafael came under a student visa, attended school daily, and worked for his friend’s company on the side – handling shipping and administrative duties.

The first few months were terrifying, but slowly he started feeling: “Yeah, I can do this! I can learn English, stay here for a longer time, and see what happens.”

6-months in, Rafael was able to hold a basic conversation.

In between those months, Rafael got into commercial and product photography. Back home in Fortaleza, events and photo shoots were his signatures, but in L.A., he found it difficult to penetrate the market because his portfolio did not meet the standards of the entertainment capital.

Luckily, he stumbled on an entirely new niche thanks to his friend/boss who needed photographs and wanted to deviate from the professional photographers they normally used. Unfamiliar with product photography, Rafael took the initiative to beef up his knowledge and skills from online resources.

With the work he was doing for the company, and an improved portfolio, Rafael started to search for freelance opportunities online. He immediately caught the attention of a large company and landed a freelance gig. As time passed, he bolstered his portfolio with portraits and artists.

12-months in the U.S.: Rafael could fully understand and speak English, and had a solid portfolio based on real work, rather than test shoots.

Year two: he started doing photography full-time.

Year five (2016): he opened Rafael Paiva Photography Studio in Hollywood.

Rafael Paiva brazilian

As an immigrant, Rafael continues to soar. From day one, he took his profession serious and has never fed into the hype. He’s not doing photography as a hobby or because it’s “cool.” He has a genuine love for it and knows his stuff! With that said, he’s not down with clients that try to barter with social media hashtags.

“Anyone can get a 4K-resolution camera. It’s not about the equipment, it’s about the experience. It’s about the taste. The years you put into learning all the techniques; the lightning; the retouching. There’s a lot more into it than people think.”

Photography is a profession. Respect it.

Rafael on who he is today vs. when he first arrived almost 6 years ago:

“Everything. My mindset is different from the time I was in Brazil. My taste is different. I have a better understanding of marketing, branding, how to sell someone or something. I still learn with each job, each client, and I was really lucky to have so many different clients from different backgrounds.”

His advice for someone who may be struggling with their cultural identity:

“If you really have a talent, people are going to notice no matter what… Don’t expect people to love you. Some will love you, some will hate you, and some won’t even care.

Be yourself. Work hard and continue learning. And don’t give up on your dreams, but be realistic. One day you’re going to make it!”

• •

- Images courtesy of Rafael Paiva

- To check out Rafael's photography studio and services offered, visit: Rafael Paiva