Varela determined that these materials needed to show black people taking leadership to change their communities and enlisted SNCC photographer Bob Fletcher to take pictures for her various projects. Fletcher eventually challenged her to begin making her own photographs and recommended that she study with Matt Herron in New Orleans. Varela notes:
“Around Matt's studio were photography books about Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and others who had captured dust bowl refugees, migrant workers and the rural poor of America. I never thought of myself as capable of creating such compelling images. I just wanted to be able to make practical photos, useful to movement organizers. But the Lange and Evans images were ever-present ghosts in the darkroom, challenging me to see differently. Under Matt's tutelage, honed by intensive shooting and long hours of printing, I came to love that moment when the image floated up through the developing solution.” (from Hands on the Freedom Plow, University of Illinois Press, 2010.)
In addition to creating educational materials, Varela's job included photographing mass marches in Mississippi and Alabama as SNCC believed that the presence of cameras would often protect marchers from violence. Covering the March against Fear, (also known as the Meredith March) in 1966, where the slogan 'black power' was born, Varela remembers photographing the first Black Panther T-shirt hand-drawn with a magic marker by a Canton, Mississippi teenager. She wrote: “The media implied that ‘black power’ was imposed on the southern rural movement by urban-raised black militants. Through the lens, I saw differently. Mirrored in the eyes of that youth was a strength and pride that had been freed from within.”
In 1968, responding to a request from the leadership of the Hispano land rights movement, Varela moved to New Mexico because of her belief of the necessity of Afro, Native and Mexican American communities to retain their ancestral lands. She spent the next forty-five years helping families organize to restore traditional livestock breeds, seeds and methods of agriculture that created the cutting edge of the ‘local and natural foods’ movement which now has a firm hold in U.S. popular culture. She also continued her photography documenting the 1968 Poor Peoples Campaign, the first Chicano Youth Conference, the 1960’s and 1970’s Chicano movement, and the lifestyles of Hispano villages.
In 1990 she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for her organizing work. Varela has been the subject of a Smithsonian article on conflicts between environmentalists and land based people, was listed as 'Hero for Hard Times' by Mother Jones magazine and in 2005 was among the 1000 Women for Peace nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In addition to her primary work of supporting communities in the Southwest, Varela has been a visiting Professor at the University of New Mexico and The Colorado College. In addition to supporting various environmental justice and immigrant rights movements, she travels the country speaking at college campuses, exhibiting her photos and is a published author.
Varela is the first Latina woman to document the 1960’s civil rights struggle in the black belt south. For the last five decades, her work has been included in books and photo exhibits featured in galleries and museums, including the New York Public Library (1968), the Smithsonian (1980), the Howard Greenberg Gallery (1994), Eastman House (1998), The Colorado College (2000), Smith College (2005), and a traveling exhibit, This Light of Ours (2010).