Behind the Vault: Prince’s Personal Photographer Shines New Light on the Man In Purple



Author Afshin Shahidi

The enigmatic Prince gave fans everything he had: his endless talent, his unique perspectives, and all that music, from funky jams to searing guitar crooners. He dared to be different and carved his own path, his music serving as a grand unifier of this fragmented world. Like David Bowie, Michael Jackson and Tom Petty, Prince left behind a legacy that will be celebrated until the end of time. Photographer Afshin Shahidi reveals never before seen snapshots in his new book Prince: A Private View, and pulls back the purple curtain of Paisley Park to shine a light on the man who just wanted to help us get through this thing called life.

Shahidi met Prince in 1993 when he entered Paisley Park a nervous kid of Iranian descent in a not-so-diverse ’90s Minnesota. Filling in as a crew member for a video shoot already underway, that day would change Shahidi’s life forever; he eventually became Prince’s cinematographer, and later, one of the only people allowed to photograph him.

“I walked in while they were shooting a guitar solo, so I kind of caught his eye. I had kind of a big ’fro, and I didn’t look black but definitely wasn’t white. He came up to me and asked, ‘Who are you? What’s your name?’ That was the first time I met him…that was a bit surreal,” said Shahidi.

Shahidi continued working on set for Prince, one day arriving with a still camera he didn’t want to freeze in the car. Prince asked to see his then non-existent photography portfolio, so he stayed up all night printing photos he had taken of his wife, thinking about how he was about to show his “little portfolio” to an iconic artist who’s been shot by the world’s best.

“I was really nervous. He thumbed through it really quickly, handed it to me and walked off, so I was like, ‘OK, it ended as quickly as it started.’”

Wrong. Those early interactions eventually led to a lengthy collaboration between the two artists. Despite thinking the jig was up, the connection between Prince and Shahidi continued to develop.

“I’d go over to Paisley to work on different projects, so he got used to seeing me. He knew my name and didn’t know a lot of other people’s names. He’d say, ‘Hey Afshin,’ and I took to calling him something different every time, but never ‘Prince.’ I’d call him ‘Hey, Boss’ or ‘Hey, Captain’ and he thought that was amusing,” said Shahidi.

One moment solidified Shahidi’s role as part of Prince’s creative team. A camera operator wasn’t able to fulfill one of Prince’s requests during a shoot. He looked at Shahidi and asked, “Can you do it?” Careful not to step on toes, Shahidi got the go-ahead from the Director of Photography.

“The next thing I know I’m standing on top of Prince’s grand piano and holding the camera and shooting him playing,” said Shahidi. “That was a transitional moment because from then on he was like, ‘That’s the kid who stepped up and was able to do what I wanted him to.’ I started to get calls to operate and eventually to be the cinematographer.”

Shahidi worked with Prince longer than any other photographer, shooting photos for countless events such as Prince’s SNL appearance and also the legendary parties Prince threw in LA. No one was immune to Prince—not even the celebrities who frequented his private hot-ticket 3121 soirées. Artists, musicians, actors and more would be invited, and the effect was always the same.

“When you’re in a room with A-list celebrities and Prince walks in, they all turn into children and all they can do is fawn over Prince,” said Shahidi. “It was really humanizing to be in a room and see people like Jennifer Lopez, Tom Cruise, Penélope Cruz…and the second Prince walked in, their breath was taken away.”

Prince A Private View

St. Martin’s Press

Shahidi traveled the world on tour, capturing electric live shots of The Artist in action and delicate moments backstage or in hotel lobbies and alleyways. While many of these photos can be seen for the first time in Prince: A Private View, a book wasn’t always in the cards. In fact, after Prince’s passing, Shahidi turned down many photo requests from publications.

“I just couldn’t bring myself to go through them. Every single picture brought back a memory,” he said.

When friends and family of Prince’s invited Shahidi back to Paisley Park for a small memorial celebrating Prince’s life, they asked him if he was thinking of doing a book. A literary agent asked him the same. He began to explore the idea, gathering thoughts and later a proposal.

“It was therapeutic to finally face it and go through the images and let whatever memories and emotions I had come back,” said Shahidi. “I spent 20 years of my life, 10 very intimately, with this person, so he was very impactful in my life beyond the music he gave us.”

Prince taught Shahidi about art and the world, yet Shahidi remembers Prince’s perspectives on life as being most influential.

“It was to view the world as a world of possibilities versus a world of obstacles. That in this life, anything you set your mind to is possible. He had it in his lyrics: ‘I don’t follow the rules. I do what I want to do.’ It reminded me to keep my eye on what I wanted and not on the things that are holding me back.”

While the book contains 250 mostly unseen photos of the icon, Shahidi seemingly has enough pictures to start his own vault, having pared down his selections from over 10,000 images. For the time being, Shahidi says there is no immediate plan for a second volume.

“Occasionally, when I’m pulling images for band members who have requested them, I’ll come across pictures I had forgotten about and I’m like, ‘Oh, man, this would’ve been great in the book.’…Maybe if I do another at some point, I’ll include them in there.”