Capturing the essence of a human being or a creature in an image can be a delicate, tricky thing that only a few talented photographers can finesse. There’s an intrinsic philosophy of fluidity that informs influential photographer Shayan Asgharnia when he eyes an honest moment in a photo shoot. Born in Iran and raised in Texas, Asgharnia is known for delving into the eccentricity, beauty and depth within his subjects.
Whether those subjects are celebrities or animals.
“There are lot of elements of ease that come into a photo shoot — whether it’s music that people enjoy — or my own personality being very pleasant and fluid,” Asgharnia tells PaperCity. “The thing I always quote that Bruce Lee always says is ‘Be Water.’
“Pour it into the palm of the hand — and it takes the shape of the hand. By the end of the day, that water is still the water. It hasn’t changed itself. . . but it moves the way it needs to. That’s the way I approach my photography.
“I’m always going to be me. I won’t jeopardize myself, but I know how to move with different personalities.”
Asgharnia’s indelible images convey the honest moments and the complexity of celebrities and dignitaries including Vice President Kamala Harris, Kristen Stewart, Toni Collette, Laura Dern, Danny Trejo and Jessica Chastain. The list of big names goes on. Fresh from an assignment covering this year’s Oscars, Asgharnia does get his fair share of celebrities seeking that quintessential money shot, but that’s not what interests him.
“There are a lot of photographers that can photograph someone and technically make it look good,” Asgharnia says. “But If I’m taking a photograph of a celeb, and you don’t look at that image and get a sense of who that person is at that point in their life and all you can tell is that this is a celebrity, then I have failed.”
Asgharnia’s not looking for perfection, a false smile, lacquered hair and manicured presence. He’s searching for honesty in every shoot.
“I don’t put anyone on a pedestal. It’s something that people can sense,” Asgharnia says. “When I meet somebody, I get a sense of their energy pretty quickly. I’m not a good vibe-only person. People come in with so much background. Not only what they’ve experienced in that day, but everything that has made them who they are.
“When it comes to getting these people comfortable, I have this ability to pretty quickly get a sense of how they are and not just how they are in general, but how they are that day. So if somebody comes in and they’re in a mood, I know that I can only push so far. But I know I will still push to get that truth.”
A portrait isn’t raw or resonant unless it truly embraces the essence of a being, according to Asgharnia. It’s all about the granular for Asgharnia. The thoughtful attention to every exquisite, imperfect detail.
“It’s about mindfulness and recognizing that everything matters to a degree,” he says. “I used to be a nihilist. But now, everything matters. Every detail matters. Regardless of how small something is, it’s still a part of everything out there, it ripples out. Everything ripples.”
Asgharnia currently splits his time in New York to Los Angeles and shares his life with his beloved dog Cher and cat named Blueberry. His work encompasses a gamut of passion projects.
“So whether it’s portraiture of people who I want to meet or helping dogs find homes — or bringing attention to a rescuer or the conservation of birds, monkeys or kittens — I will commit time for it,” he says.
Shayan Asgharnia Goes Beyond Celebrities
Depth and emotional intelligence run like a current in his images. There’s more to Shayan Asgharnia than shooting luminaries and celebrities. His passion projects include “Rescued,” which involves collaboration with Marley’s Mutt’s Pawsitive Change, a program where rescue dogs from all over the world are paired to live with inmates for 12 weeks.
“I’m a big advocate for prison reform. It’s essentially modern day slave labor,” Asgharnia says. “I photograph dogs that are needing homes, for rescues. It’s a perfect blend of I’m a portrait photographer and I also love dogs. . . and I love this cause, so let’s go exploring. It’s complete mutual rehabilitation.”
A compassionate approach to his subjects is Asgharnia’s signature style. It’s all about seeking a sense of empathy and understanding in the portrait.
“I prefer to speak to these people on a level of pure humanity,” Asgharnia says. “When I interact with people, we’ll talk about what is personal. When I talked to Jessica Chastain, we talked about her mom’s Vegan food truck.
“When I photographed Kevin Hart, when he came to sit early on, I saw him open his phone, I saw a background of his kids. So I asked him about his family and that’s when Kevin Hart really opened up.”
Be it horned majestic owls, or feisty and affectionate rescue dogs up for adoption, Asgharnia has an artistic eye and talent that can reveal the personality of each animal featured in a special series called Creatures. Asgharnia’s intuitive drive to capture a creature’s intrinsic vibe is highly is sought after. And he uses for the greater good, posting as many pet adoption images as he can. Asgharnia collaborates with such animal education organizations as Avian Behavior , Real Good Rescue and Wolf Connection.
“It’s (personality) inherently there,” he says. “It’s kinda shocking that people don’t see it. I get to see their personalities. I want to be able to see that too. It’s important to understand that they are all sentient beings, but they have their own histories, backgrounds and traumas.
“Just because they don’t speak our language and they don’t have iPhones or stories on social media, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have their stories.”
Asgharnia’s roots run deep in Iran, but Dallas was a pivotal place for his imagination to be nurtured as a child. His artistic mentor and role model was his cousin, Dallas-based Vari creative director Ali Golzad.
“I was just kind of blown away by him and was inspired by him,” Asgharnia says. “I wonder if my life would have been different if I had not met him. We’re still dear friends. He lives in Dallas. And he knows he’s inspired me. I’m a big believer in telling people who have inspired you how they’ve inspired you.”
Growing up in Dallas was something that Asgharnia appreciates now, in retrospect, but that wasn’t always the case.
“I was just deeply inspired about ways of getting out of getting of my suburban Hell as a kid,” Asgharnia says. “Whereas now, I have a deep appreciation of it. I’m a fan of Dallas urban life and also being your own boss.
“I really don’t like the idea of answering to anyone outside of my clients and this affords me that. But it also allows me to deal with things that I’m passionate about on a variety of levels.”
Asgharnia studied documentary production at the University of Texas, and his approach to the documentarian interview is informed by his curiosity and openness.
“I’m one of those extroverted introverts. I enjoy meeting people and getting to know strangers,” Asgharnia says. “I can always have a conversation with anyone, regardless of who they are. You know, it doesn’t matter to me who you think you are or what your title is or how attractive you are.
“It’s organic for me. It comes from my documentary background. When I interview people, I’ll ask the question and they’ve answered it. I won’t immediately, after they say what they say, go on to my next thing. I might have a little bit of a moment silence and looking at them, in a way that says tell me more. And they often do.”
For Asgharnia, his solo work as a influential creative came through an evolution of the learning he loved and didn’t love about his work. When he first moved to Los Angeles, Asgharnia was a production assistant, and he discovered the work was lackluster. It took a shift in perception and meditation to embrace what he really wanted to do. To understand what his focus should be.
“I was finding myself not enjoying my work, and I was really disconnected from a lot of things never really present,” Asgharnia says. “I was heavily focused on what’s lacking or what’s wrong with the world, as opposed to what’s right and what’s good. Not to say that I’m not a good vibes person. I’m a pragmatic, logical person.
“I was trying to realize how much I was allowing myself to suffer about the things I could not immediately change. How much I was really not enjoying the work anymore. I was focused on what’s not there in the work or why is the money not right. Then, I thought ‘What is that I really like that I do?’ And it’s a love of people and a love of animals. And being able to spend time and space with both of those.”
Mindfulness and confidence are crucial to capturing the essence of an individual and creating enduring images, according to Asgharnia.
“I would say again, it’s when I’m most present,” Asgharnia says. “There’s a certain self confidence that I think is necessary in my line of work. And that self confidence is how you make feel others at ease. I worked with photographers and you could sense their lack of confidence. You have the potential to start losing a subject when you lack confidence. When it comes to shooting, I am very present and I know what I want to do.”
Asgharnia’s work will be on view at the “Artists for Artists’ Mind: Full’ exhibition” through this Wednesday, April 13 at 112 Travis Street in Houston. “The Mind: Full” event helps support equitable access to the arts and mental health services for the Houston creative community. An integral part of the mission for the opening is to increase the accessibility of fine art within historically excluded communities.
For Shayan Asgharnia, that’s another mission worth supporting.
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