Afshin Shahidi first met Prince in 1993 at Paisley Park on a music video set. The cameraman had slightly bent the truth to get the job by telling the person who was running the shoot that he knew how to load film into a motion picture camera magazine. In reality, he had no clue how to do it, but the Minnesotan wasn't about to miss what might be his only chance to meet the iconic artist. Luckily things went well enough that the set manager called him back and over the years Afshin worked on a variety of music videos and film projects with Prince.
To get in this position, Shahidi slowly worked into Prince's inner circle, starting as a first-time film loader, then working on projects as a cinematographer, and finally becoming Prince's personal photographer. He used his lens for introspective glimpses into the world that the reclusive and eccentric superstar inhabited, and got a front row seat to one of the greatest entertainers of our time. The photographer got his big break when Prince took him on his 2002 European tour, specifically to snap photos. This opportunity gave Shahidi intimate and ongoing contact with Prince, and even became an extension of his creative process. In a new book, Prince: A Private View (out now on St. Martin Press and featuring an introduction by Beyoncé), the Iranian-born, American photographer shares with fans his cache of rarely seen photos that capture Prince like no one has before. For the book, Shahidi narrowed down from literally thousands of images to the 250 plus that ended up in the final product, and Noisey is publishing seven of those photos today.
We talked to Shahidi by phone to find out how his photos captured the essence of who Prince was, what it was like to be the icon's friend, what it was like shooting the legendary 3121 private parties in LA, and what all those candid, personal, and inclusive moments revealed. Here's what he had to say.
Noisey: How did you get into photography and cameras?
Afshin Shahidi: Photography was always something that was a hobby of mine. I was taking pictures of my wife, occasionally people needed headshots, any chance that I had to kind of practice photography I took. At a young age my mother was a hobbyist so I grew up with her having a dark room in the basement and me kind of tinkering with that and watching the magic of seeing a photo appear on photographic paper when it's in the chemicals. Especially, at that time, as a kid, it seemed like magic, so that kind of drew me in. Over the years, as very creative and visual person, photography, cinematography, and filmmaking were kind of what my passions were. Growing up in Minnesota I really didn't know what to do with them, so I ended up studying physics in college, but when it came time to actually pick a career I wanted to figure out how to get into the visual arts.
What was your technique when taking shots of Prince and how did he influence the images?
Part of the reason that I went from film to digital was because of Prince. He asked me if we could shoot digital. What he liked about it was the immediate feedback. We could take a picture and look at it either on the screen or on the back of the camera and make some decisions versus when I shot film. I think part of being Iranian and kind of what's instilled in me is there's something about symmetry that I always like and end up seeing in my photographs with Prince. He's usually always centered.
How many of the photos in the book were lighted and set up as opposed to just shoot on the go?
The majority are more candid. The only ones that are really set up are the more portrait type shots. Where it's kind of head and shoulders and he's looking into the camera. Those I set up and put up lights and whatnot. Everything else, like shows and just being out, I had my camera and he did his thing and I photographed him. Occasionally, I'd see something in a location we were at and I'd say, hey, do you mind coming here and taking a shot, but I never really posed him. I always wanted to capture him being as natural as possible.
How do you think your photographs captured the essence of Prince?
His eyes are really piercing and are at the center of a lot of my photographs. [He's] this really kind of handsome, beautiful man. I feel like I captured him being himself and being natural. Not necessarily being too aware of the camera. It's hard not to be aware of it when I'm standing there shooting pictures, but as much as I could I tried to kind of blend in and not bring attention to myself or the camera. I feel like you [can] get a sense of kind of who he was [through the photos]. His goofy side at times, his serious side, his moody side. I think you get a little glimpse at all of that in the photos.
What was Prince like as a friend?
He took me under his wings. He took my family in and supported us in many ways. He knew my kids, knew my wife. We went on vacations together. The friendship developed over the course of the creative collaboration. It was just very natural [and] we ended up spending a lot of time together. Just sitting and listening to him talk about music, but also talk about artist's rights and creativity and all those things. He really kind of mentored me. It was never lost on [me] how unique the situation was that [I'm] sitting here with this iconic person, just one on one and hanging out. I didn't literally pinch myself, but I just felt like is this real? Going out to a club with just me and Prince? It was very bizarre and surreal.
It was humbling for me that he trusted me and cared about me enough [to ask for] my creative input [and] continue both the working relationship and friendship. He liked to joke around and mess around whenever possible, which I didn't know before I got to know him. He was so good at so many things. Obviously, as a musician he was a multi-instrumentalist and had an amazing voice, but he could beat me at pool. He could beat me at Ping-Pong. He could beat me at basketball and I was good at all three of these things. This guy is on another level.
What was it like when Prince passed away suddenly? Did this lead to you putting the book together as a kind of testament to his legacy?
Initially, after Prince passed it was really difficult for me, for my family, obviously, for a lot of people around the world. But especially for us that knew him and considered him a friend. It took me a while to even look at any of my images. People were calling me and requesting photos for different things and I couldn't even go through my archived images to look. It brought back a lot of memories and all my memories of working with Prince are really good, but at that time it was painful having those memories, so it took me a while.
I received a lot of support from his fans around the world. Many people reached out and said, where can we see these images, have you thought about doing a book? I started giving it a little more serious thought. I was trying to find some sort of closure. Which I hadn't been able to find in terms of his passing. I started going through the images and they brought back memories. It became therapeutic for me and kind of helped me through the grieving process. Mostly I did it for the fans, but for me it was therapy and if people are able to enjoy it that's all the better. The ultimate goal is to continue his legacy in a meaningful and respectful way.
What takeaways do you want readers to have after they read your book?
I hope it puts a smile on people's face. I hope they're able to see a side of Prince that maybe they didn't know about. I want to continue his legacy [for] the Purple Family, as we call all the Prince fans around the world. [We] are really strong and communal and I want them to be able to enjoy the book in honoring Prince's memory.
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