Arash Afshar

Photographer, Host of Burner Podcast and Founder of Justified Hype

commercial photography

From art students to commercial photography collaborators

Shooting for OMEED by Nadia Vaad, a boutique collection of high end artisan jewelry, was a commercial photography gig. It was also absolutely a sincere expression of my artistic vision. The overlap of those two things was something a younger Arash thought he’d never experience.

Nadia Vaad is my sister-in-law’s little sister. She and I both attended San Diego State University at the same time and both had the supremely talented Neil Shigley as our illustration professor. I always knew we’d collaborate on something at some point. At that time, I would have never imagined it would be this. The primary reason being I could never imagine being good enough at commercial photography to create the kinds of imagery we’ve created together.

Choosing the artist’s path

I was an art major with emphasis in graphic design and she in architecture. I love design but that wasn’t why I’d selected that emphasis. I’d felt the unquenchable thirst to create as far back as I can remember. Being an artist is not a career path; it’s more like a gender identity. We don’t choose it. If I truly had a choice in the matter, I swear art wouldn’t have been it. It was a long and hard uphill battle just to get here and I’m not entirely certain I can even tell you where here is.


I spent many nights legitimately wishing, sometimes in tears, that God would take away this thing, this drive, this obsession with daydreaming and imagery and creativity. I wanted, more than anything, to be able to find joy and satisfaction in a more reliable path. I’d have killed to be interested in medicine or engineering. It would have saved me a great deal of heartache with my conservative parents and the Iranian community. Because I knew that the chances of affording a BMW my folks could show off to their fellow immigrant friends, or mortgage payments on a home in the better part of town so my family could rest easier at night, would likely be as slim as the models in the magazines I now review for inspiration. They wanted an easier life for me and those who don’t identify as artists have no frame of reference for how deep we’re willing to go in this rabbit hole. Because they think it’s a choice.


Graphic design was the compromise I came to in my head: I’d get to have an actual job and go to an actual office and I’d also get to be creative. Graphic design, however, is not one’s art. It draws from art but it typically does’t draw from an artist’s soul. Graphic design is a system of communication and most often really more about problem solving than creativity. Or at least that’s what I discovered when I forced a compromise on myself. I know now, after having gone through this journey, that had I not compromised, I may have found a great deal of joy in a career in design. But anytime we go against our inner being’s desire for creation and expansion, we will subconsciously fight our own success.

The artist as identity

Flash forward a few years and here I am, having fallen on my face enough times to finally receive the most important lesson of all: that joy and passion are what matter most. I legitimately feel like I came out as an artist, which is why I feel that it is more like a gender identity. There were night terrors and transitions in relationship and pushback. After coming out, there was a time where I went way over the top trying to find my voice before evening out. I am quick to correct you if you refer to yourself as an aspiring artist. That’s bull. If you can’t stop yourself from creating you ARE an artist. Being an artist is not the same as being a professional artist – or an entrepreneur who has monetized art. It’s like cooking every day for 20 years and saying “I’m an aspiring cook.” No, you’re a cook. What you mean is you desire to work professionally as a cook or a chef.


I was afraid of referring to myself as an artist. In the Middle-eastern community especially, there is an general anxiety not to step too far out of line. Eastern cultures tend to be more collectivist and hold a stronger grip on maintaining the status quo. Outsiders are not as easily welcomed and new ideas can take a longer time to find a foothold. It is absolutely is a survival mechanism. My parents, after all these years, still have a hard time connecting with my non-Iranian friends. My mom’s gotten a lot better but my dad just pretty much completely gave up even trying to learn English. It’s not easy. I’m not blaming them, just laying out the reality of it all.


It was Neil Shigley, the aforementioned illustration professor, that first told me that I am an artist, and that I needn’t be afraid of saying it. I remember the email from him clear as day because it was the first time I felt like I had permission. Neil and I had continued to stay connected after my graduation. We’d meet regularly for coffee and catch up. He was the friend and mentor I needed as I was trying to figure out my next step in life. Neil has this wonderful non-judgmental way about him and is exactly the kind of person I am thankful to say I most often attract into my life. He is an artist that can’t wait to tell you that you too can create art. I’ve met the other type – the ones that are quickly threatened and can’t wait to tell you about how hard it’s been for them. Perhaps Neil and I were already aligned, but his open and supportive approach had a deep impact on my leadership style and how I often I look forwards to encourage and supporting younger artists.


Creating art professionally

I’m pretty proud of these photos. They are art. They are ads but they are my creative expression. They way they’re shot is my style. It’s been a winding road getting to this place and it’s exactly where I’d always dreamt of being. The photoshoots came as a result of being commissioned to help tell the story of the OMEED jewelry designs and I was given the freedom to choose how I’d go about telling that story. In Nadia Vaad, I had the pleasure of working with an artist I respect and admire and we really do make a great team. She has great ideas about how to set things up and then let’s me run wild with ideas. We were always in full agreement that the jewelry designs were a character in the story but that the women wearing them were the stars. First two shoots were more traditional: a pretty house, a beautiful model, some outfits…


The last one was the real curveball. Nadia had coordinated her sisters as models and the shoot was scheduled on Thanksgiving morning. A couple of locations we’d kicked around fell through so we landed on shooting at her sister’s home in the Carmel Valley area of San Diego. I was a bit anxious about shooting there because I’d had previous experiences shooting in a home setting and having a harder time getting subjects to step out of their normal selves. As the day approached, it turned out to be a dark and rainy day. And then on the night of, my hair and makeup artist canceled last minute. It was as if the universe was just fighting me every step of the way but it ended up being our favorite shoot.


We laughed and felt really free to play. Time was tight so we plowed through each setup very quickly. Light was limited so I got even more creative. Our favorite moment of the shoot was probably the part where I’d run out of interesting angles to shoot inside, so I went outside and aimed in through the glass. Pegah Ghamary and I had shot together twice before and she’d gotten pretty good at anticipating my directions. So there I stood in the rain, with an umbrella over my head but with the handle shoved down my shirt so that I could have both hands free in order to hold the camera, aiming my lens at Pegah through the window from the backyard. I gave direction by pantomiming and pointing at my eyes and then pointing in the direction I wanted her to look. And the shots were absolute magic. The universe conspires in our favor.


Graphic design has a harder time being art. But design, commercial photography and advertising, when all aimed at telling the story of a new creation in concert, have a larger well of art to draw from. Which, in turn, can breed a new artistic essence.


You should absolutely check out Neil Shigley’s art. If you’ve been through San Diego, chances are high you’ve passed by his massive murals at the San Diego International Airport.
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