Prince has had numerous photographers over the years, but there’s one who stuck out to the Purple One from the day they met: Afshin Shahidi. If his name is familiar, it’s because you know and adore his beautiful daughter, Yara Shahidi, who shines as Zoe on Black-ish and will continue to sprinkle her Black Girl Magic all over her spinoff, Grown-ish. So it’s fair to say that this family is bubbling with talent.
Afshin Shahidi recently put out a book of previously unreleased photos of Prince from his tenure snapping images of the majestic legend—Prince: A Private View—and it’s everything. Not only do we get to see images of Prince we’ve never seen before, but we also get to hear some of the entertaining backstories behind them.
Shahidi gifted me a copy of Prince: A Private View, and I’ve been tearing up while leafing through the glorious book. Page after page of never-before-seen images of Prince, and some of them with stories. On Page 5, for example, there’s an image of Prince, with his eyes closed, sitting alone in a theater. Shahidi shares:
These were some of my favorite moments to shoot. If the sound was good, Prince was relaxed and in a great mood. Here he is relaxing after sound check at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, during the One Nite Alone Tour.
I got the chance to chat with Shahidi about his book, and of course I asked him all the things I’ve ever wanted to know about Prince. We also dug into what this book of magical images means to the culture. P.S.: Did you know that Prince was also an avid photographer?!
“I would joke with him because he was so good,” Shahidi said. “He was able to do so many things well—he played just about every instrument. I joked with him that he’s lucky he can’t clone himself because he would be able to take his own picture and I would be out of a job.”
The Root: How did you even get this gig?
Afshin Shahidi: The main reason I started with him initially—him being the innovator he was, he started an online music club, a subscription-based music club [where] all his fans could access his music and a lot more.
And at first, a lot of the images I would take of him would be utilized in the music club so his fans could see everywhere that we went and the shows that he played. From there, we built a friendship and a trust. From that point, he took me just about everywhere he went.
TR: How did one build a friendship with Prince?
AS: By the time I started photographing Prince, he had been in front of the camera for nearly two decades. He knew the power and the impact of images, and he himself was an avid photographer. I ended up buying him a camera at one point because he had such a good eye and he was always asking to borrow mine, so I said, “You know what? You deserve to have your own camera.”
I was able to capture moments that typically—if it was a photo shoot with someone he didn’t know, he would be a lot more guarded, but eventually he would forget about the camera being there and he would let his guard down. Some of those images are in the book, and I think those are the most arresting ones and tell you the most about him because people aren’t used to seeing that. They’re used to seeing him on a stage with a guitar for a portrait or something. I wanted to capture a side of him that people haven’t seen.
It all came from a trust he had for me and an understanding he had that I was there to capture the moments, but to also be his creative collaborator. Once that trust was there—he knew my family, my wife and my kids—it was more than just an employer-employee relationship, and that allowed me to capture a lot of these images where he was unguarded.
TR: You went from young kid on set to director of photography with Prince. Can you talk about your stellar career trajectory?
AS: I was very passionate about photography, filmmaking and image-making, as was Prince about music, so I think he sensed that in me from the first moment he saw me at [his compound in Minnesota] Paisley Park and kinda looked at me like, “Who is this kid? He doesn’t look like any of the people here,” to then seeing me in music-video shoots and having conversations with me.
He started giving me opportunities. I was a camera assistant, and I remember there was a crew in from [Los Angeles] and the operator wasn’t getting the shot the way Prince wanted it. We were shooting a music video. Prince looked at me and was like, “Can you do it?” I was kind of in between a rock and a hard place because I didn’t want to step on the toes of these other people who were hired to do this. Yes, I can do it.
I looked over at the [director of photography] at the time and he was like, [shrugs], “Go for it if you think ... ” So I said, yeah I can do it. Prince asked what would I do and I said, “I’ve seen this angle so many times on you, what I would do is stand up on your piano and shoot down while you’re playing.” He thought about it and was like, “OK, do it.”
Next thing I know, I’m operating the camera, standing on top of Prince’s purple grand piano. I was so nervous. I took my shoes off. I was up there in socks. I was slipping. I was nervous about falling on top of Prince and ending it for both of us. It was one of those things, like, “This kid thinks he can do it, let me give him a chance.”
TR: A picture is worth a thousand words; the photos you’ve taken of Prince, what are a few words you think of when you flip through them?
AS: It took me a while to look at the images after he passed. I think what always stuck out to me—even when I was photographing him—were his eyes. They were just always so piercing. Even looking at them through my lens, I felt like he was looking through my lens and through me at the same time. “Mesmerizing” is a word. Watching him play live, it’s electrifying. I found it difficult to capture those live moments in the way that I liked. I felt like there was so much energy in his performance, and the still image didn’t give you the full impact of what was happening on the stage.
When you look at the picture, it’s like an out-of-focus picture. But I felt like it captured the energy of the performance much, much more. He was looking at the pictures and he stopped me and asked, “What’s up with all these out-of-focus pictures?” And I explained to him I had a hard time showing how amazing his guitar solos are in pictures that are sharp and in focus. I didn’t feel like he bought it. [Laughs.]
I still took those kind of pictures because I thought they were good. By the third time, he asked me where are the cool pictures. I thought he didn’t like them! It was amazing because Prince was like, we can all learn something from other people.
TR: What’s your favorite image you’ve ever taken of Prince?
AS: That’s a hard one. I have a lot, not because I took them, but I think he’s so mesmerizing in so many ways. I think I do prefer the candid shots. Coming from a film-and-documentary background, those speak to me a lot more. I liked doing the live shots where he’s performing. That’s a lot of great energy, and I was uplifted just sitting there listening to his music. Those were fun for me to shoot.
There’s a couple images that I really like, and I think it’s because his eyes are so piercing. That image of him with a black hat, it’s a portrait—head and shoulders —and he’s looking into [the] camera. It’s somewhat mysterious, but it’s a true Prince. He’s so relaxed and comfortable.
So some of these images, I recall what was happening at the time. It may not be just the image itself but the circumstances around the images that makes it stand out for me. That one was from when he was doing the “Black Sweat” video, and he was walking and there was some great light, and I was like, “Prince, stop right there.” And he stopped and he let me have a few shots.
TR: What was the best thing about the job?
AS: The awesome thing was the job and the relationship itself, which translated to a lot of opportunities. I love to travel, and that was the most enjoyable part of the job—I got to travel the world with him. As I said in the book, oftentimes it wasn’t with a lot of preplanning.
I’d get a call when I’m out with family and he’d be like, “Hey, I’m going to Panama tomorrow.” “Can you come to Morocco tomorrow?” It was exciting that I was able to do that, and it became so normal for him to call me and say that, like he was asking me out to coffee.
TR: Why do this book?
AS: A lot of fans have reached out since his passing, asking for a book [of] images, and I was hesitant. I found that as I explored the idea, it was therapeutic to work on this and put it together. I wasn’t sure if I would publish it, but I did it to make the fans smile and see a part of Prince they may not have known. I wanted people to see that he was a man, a human being. I don’t think he ever thought of himself as any more than that.
Prince: A Private View is available now.