Today’s spotlight is into the life and mind of a very interesting man born in Tehran. Shayan Asgharnia has become successful through hard work and persistence and had some very inspiring perspectives to share about his experience. Shayan is one of the top celebrity photographers right now and he’s doing a lot of other positive work in the community. He’s also under 30 years old!
With the onset of iPhones, photography quickly became one of the most competitive industries. Seemingly overnight, as demand plummeted with everyone having access to special effects apps, it required an artist to truly know their craft to be able to stand out from the non-professionals.
Q: You have a star studded career and meeting you now might make it seem like it was a piece of cake, but I’m sure you’ve put in a lot of work to get to your level as an editorial and advertising photographer. Did you have a mentor who may have helped you push through obstacles and what was your main motivation in pursuing this career?
I studied documentary filmmaking at the University of Texas at Austin and started working as a production assistant on commercials/music videos after moving to LA in the fall of 2011. Two years of long hours, odd industry jobs and gradual disenchantment with my career path. I frequently wondered if I’d made the right decision and whether or not I should go back to school to figure something else out.
Photography was nothing more than a hobby until I met a photographer on one of our commercial shoots. He asked if I know how to light, and I told him, “If you teach me, I’ll work for you for free.” He took me into Milk Studios where I interned to learn about equipment, met photographers, photo assistants and producers and started to finally get a tangible sense of the possibility of making it in this business.
For the next 2-3 years, I had the privilege of working freelance with some of the top photographers in the industry. It was like getting paid to go to photo school. With each shoot, I learned new lighting techniques, saw how different photographers interacted with subjects and clients and began to piece together different elements I liked to incorporate in my own work.
The one time I ever assisted Peter Lindbergh, I was simply a third assistant who kept a shade over his head as he was working. At the end of the day, he came up to me and said, “I apologize for not speaking with you more.” This man was on my bucket list of photographers to work with and in that moment, he taught me that regardless of your level of talent and reputation, you can be humble and kind to the people around you. None of this work can be done without the help and talent of others. The credit of a photo might have my name on it, but it takes a whole team of photo assistants, hair/makeup/wardrobe stylists, PR and photo editors to bring it all together.
Q: It looks like your father is a spirited man from the photo of him flipping the bird on your website. Can you give us a sense of what it was like in your home growing up and if your parents were traditional Iranian?
That photo alone is brought up in nearly every photo-related meeting. “Who is this badass, elderly brown man telling me to go fuck myself while puffing on a cigar?” I have a large print of that hanging in my home and a number of people across the US who’ve never met Yahya Asgharnia have purchased that print to hang in their own homes.
I was born in Tehran, but moved to Texas when I was less than 2 years old. I wouldn’t consider my Iranian family the most traditional; my dad took me to get my ear pierced when I was 13. I’m lucky to have parents who supported every hobby I ever had. They stressed that as long I’m doing my best at what I do without hurting others to get to my goal, I would have their blessing. It’s a beautiful privilege to grow up with the ability to have no career limitations. It’s important to know where you come from and respect your heritage and culture, but you should be the master of your own life.
Q: You’ve been able to work for many progressive individuals besides the A list actors and musicians such as Ahilan Arulanatham (legal director of the ACLU of Socal), US Congressman Adam Schiff and political social activist/director/World War II veteran Norman Lear in just the last year or so. Are there any specific social issues that you like to take on with your work?
Funny enough, all three of those assignments were photographed for Jennifer Dorn, the photo director at Los Angeles Magazine. I’ve been telling photo editors that it’s important to me to photograph people of all walks of life, people who are affecting change either locally or globally. As people, we’re all in this together and we should each do our part to make things better for each other.
I’m passionate about animal welfare, in particular dog rescue, so I photograph rescue dogs on some days off to help them find a home. Not a bad way to spend a day off.
Be whatever kind of Iranian you want to be anywhere in the world
Q: When looking at your work, it’s clear there’s more to the power behind it than Photoshop. Your work is robustly emotive and the eyes in your photos each tell a story. These pictures are certainly worth 1,000 words and I’m not one to be overly complimenting. Your passion is evident in your work. Can you let us into the way you think when you’re photographing these iconic figures and somehow capturing their essence?
You’re too kind! The most important thing to me is to capture a subject’s humanity. I frequently receive emails from people asking if I’m willing to photograph “regular” people, to which I respond, “I photograph people.” I don’t care about the status of celebrity. I care about the individual’s work, their contribution to society and their personality as a human being.
If the subject is a public figure, research is key. I’ll read as many articles and interviews on the subject as I can get my hands on. Whenever possible, I think it’s important to find common ground outside of the subject’s career for the two of us to connect within moments of meeting. Sometimes I only get 15 minutes with a subject, so the faster I establish a familiarity, the faster I can get that personality shining through.
Q: I love the portraits you did for rescue dogs and they are close to my heart as well. Recent reports say The Netherlands have no stray dogs. In your opinion, what can we do to actualize that reality in America?
This is a very complicated issue, and I won’t pretend to have the answer. Neutering and spaying pets is vital, but I’m also very much pro-rescuing dogs as opposed to buying from breeders; I’m very pleased Los Angeles banned dog and cat sales from commercial breeders. There’s arguments on both sides, but why not save an innocent life in need of food, comfort and love instead of paying $2k+ for a puppy from someone breeding for profit? I adopted my own dog, Moosh (Farsi for “mouse”), from the Downey Animal Shelter. She’s the love of my life.
I work with the lovely folks at Rescue From The Heart and occasionally go to the California City Correctional Facility for an ongoing documentary project photographing the Marley’s Mutts Pawsitive Change program, which pairs rescue dogs with inmates for mutual rehabilitation. Everyone involved with these kinds of organizations are heroes.
Q: You’ve been featured in some heavy hitting magazines, you’re one of the top celebrity photographers under 30 and even shot the portraits of Emmy contenders for Variety. What keeps you grounded in such an environment and how do you deal with egos?
I deal with everyone as though they’re regular people. I won’t fawn over a subject regardless of what they’ve done. The key is to always approach everything with mutual respect. We’re all human beings at the end of the day.
Q: Being in your line of work requires a thick skin and so does dealing with racism. I recently read something that said, you won’t get hurt if you isolate yourself from everyone and develop no close personal relationships. Obviously that was pointing out that it’s not healthy for us to retreat from engaging in society for fear of being hurt. Do you have techniques you’ve developed to stay passionate without becoming calloused?
I don’t face much discrimination, really. I was in the 6th grade living in Plano, TX when 9/11 happened; fortunately, Plano is an exceptionally diverse city where I never really felt like the minority. There were a few situations where the reaction of a friend’s family was, “Well, you’re one of the good ones,” and I remember one parent’s dad warning her against hanging out with me because “men from his part of the world are controlling of women.” This coming from a guy who worked for Pat Robertson’s 700 Club.
Find what you love and pursue it relentlessly. Who cares what people want to think about you? Show them you can do whatever you please and that you can do it well.
Q: For those pursuing a creative path, the artists that allow us to see the world differently, how much do you feel their environment affects them? By that I mean did you find you had greater or less motivation than those around you and how does your environment fuel or demotivate you? Is it a choice?
Environment is very important. I spent the first 20 years of my life trying to find a way out of Texas. I love that state, but my career wouldn’t be where it is had I not moved to LA and taken trips to NY and other cities to build professional relationships while also refining my own technique. Put yourself in challenging situations and environments that force you to grow as an artist. Stagnation and complacency are death.
Q: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to share your story and insights with us. Is there anything else we didn’t cover you’d like to add for the readers of The Iranian?
Thank you for the opportunity! Here’s my last note to your readers: be whatever kind of Iranian you want to be anywhere in the world. If you’re not living under a repressive regime, at the end of the day, the only person stopping you is you. You may face obstacles or judgment from family or society, but to hell with them. Break those barriers and take what you want as long as you do so with respect and compassion for your fellow human beings. Life’s too damn short. You do you.