One of my favorite pictures of Prince is the cover photo of Afshin Shahidi’s book, Prince: A Private View, which was released today. One of the reasons I am so enamored of this picture is due to the striking contrast of black and white in Prince’s clothing against the simplistic set— what appears to be a plain hallway. What is even more endearing to me as a 30+ year fan is that Prince, who was of a smaller stature, even in the most ordinary of spaces was ginormous. He was a larger than life figure in life and in his passing his absence has left a chasm that no artist now or in the future will be able to fill. Through his work and his films, Prince will remain an omnipotent part of our history.
I interviewed Shahidi in August to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Prince’s first VMA performance in 1987 and took my “Purple Army” on a literary trip through Prince’s life by recommending and reviewing books about him: new, past, and hard-to-find, including Shahidi’s book. Afshin Shahidi, who is said to be the photographer that worked with Prince the longest, responded to an interview request to discuss his new book and gave me something I will keep close to my heart as I venture on to write liner notes for an upcoming Prince tribute album and chapters in a few books: Afshin gave me a view of the private, but all too human, man that our Prince was.
Here is my interview with Afshin where we talked about his beginnings with Prince, how Prince embraced his family, Beyonce (who wrote the book’s foreword) and taking a two-block stroll through New York City streets with a man who was and will always be the artist known as Prince.
BookTrib: How did you come to be Prince’s photographer?
Afshin: I met Prince in 1993 doing music videos. I worked on a number of video projects with him, many of which are in his vault. In 2001 he noticed I had brought in a case and being ever curious, asked me what it was. told him it was my still camera. I didn’t want to leave it in my car because it was winter and it would have frozen. His eyes lit up and he asked me if I was a photographer, too. It all started from that moment.
BookTrib: Did he always have a vision for how he wanted the photos to come out, or did you sometimes play it by ear according to his mood and what he was working on at the time? Was there any spontaneity?
Afshin: Prince was both open to what I wanted to do and to being spontaneous. Often, he would just ask me if I was amiable to come to Paisley to shoot and then we would take it from there. I would tell him and idea, he would take that and improve on it and we would go back and forth, then on the shoot it would also be very open and free. We may start with one idea and end up with something completely different; it felt very much like a music making process with a band.
BookTrib: Your daughter, (Harvard-bound actress Yara Shahidi who co-stars on ABC’s Black-ish) told a story once, after Prince died, about how he had a picture of her in his office from when she was young. How much did it mean to you that he embraced your family like that instead of just seeing you as an employee?
Afshin: It meant the world to me that he embraced my family the way he did and how kind and generous he was with us. During the period that I was photographing Prince, I almost spent more time with him than my family so whenever possible he would include them in what we were doing. When he played a few shows in Hawaii, he asked me to bring my family along. Also when I went to London at the beginning of the European One Nite Alone tour, my daughter and my wife— who was pregnant with my first son— came along. They would come to the shows and then head back to the hotel. I would continue on to the aftershow and whatever else we may do after that. I would get back to the hotel at 5 or 6 in the morning. My wife, Keri, would have food waiting for me and then she would take my film from the previous night and take it to the lab while I got some rest. It was really a family affair. Prince’s passing affected my whole family and finding out that he still had a picture of Yara in his office really warmed our hearts during the pain of his untimely passing.
BookTrib: Prince fancied himself a photographer of sorts. What things were you able to teach him about your craft?
Afshin: Great question. He was a very visual person and being in front of still and motions cameras from a very young age definitely gave him both respect for the craft and a fascination with it. I actually bought Prince a camera at one point along the way. He would ask me technical questions about exposure and focus, but he had a great eye and made some beautiful images. Since he was able to play every instrument and make an album by himself, I would often joke with him that I was lucky he wasn’t able to clone himself because he would be fantastic at taking his own picture. I don’t really have any pictures of Prince and I together but I have several of myself that Prince took, which I treasure.
BookTrib: How did Beyonce come to write the foreword? What things did she say about Prince that most influenced her as an artist, particularly in regard to how she wanted to appear in pictures?
Afshin: When the question of a foreword came up, Beyonce was the first person I thought of, for several reasons. First, I wanted someone Iconic to be able to speak about Prince, the ultimate Icon. Second, I wanted someone who was unexpected. I have great admiration for the people who were close to Prince. I wanted a perspective that was different than mine and a lot of us who were close to Prince had similar experiences. I wanted someone that I knew Prince respected and, if he was still with us, he would have approved of. People don’t know but he was very impressed with Beyonce’s talent and her work ethic, which is very close to Prince’s. Lastly, and probably most importantly, I wanted someone who had reach with the younger generations, not to sell more books, but to bring attention to Prince so they will, hopefully, be turned on by his brilliance and to continue his legacy.
BookTrib: Lastly, what’s one of your funniest/fondest memories of Prince the man, not the celebrity, and how did you capture that on film?
Afshin: A lot of the funny moments were after the cameras were put away and we were just hanging out. One particular memory that I look back on, fondly, also touches on your question about spontaneity. It happened when we were in New York City for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction. We were staying at a hotel a few blocks away from the venue where the Induction was happening. It was beautiful day and I was getting some fresh air outside of the hotel when Prince walked out and was about to get in his limo for the two block ride to the venue. I figured it was a long shot, but I ran up to Prince and asked if he was willing to walk to the Waldorf where the induction ceremony was. I said it was a nice day and I wanted to get some exercise. Off course I had my cameras with me. To my surprise, he said yes and we left the limo and the bodyguard behind then the two of us walked. It still makes me smile thinking about how he strutted down the street, waiting along with the New Yorkers and tourists, then standing at the crosswalk waiting for the light to change. I took a few pictures of our walk over, but more than anything it was wonderful to see Prince smile and enjoy himself. Luckily I didn’t get us lost and when we arrived Prince said “thank you Afshin.”
BookTrib: Thank you, indeed!
Check out this podcast with a live interview with Afshin:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Afshin Shahidi is an Iranian-born, American photographer and filmmaker, has worked worldwide on a depth and variety of projects, ranging from films and documentaries, to music videos and commercials. Early in his career, he worked as a camera assistant on Prince’s music video sets in Minnesota. Afshin lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three children and continues to create art at any and all cost, in the spirit of his mentor.