Arash Afshar

Photographer, Host of Burner Podcast and Founder of Justified Hype

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I’m not a writer, but I can write.

It’s a bit of a head-scratcher but there’s a very subtle difference in the underlying energy of those words. I have multiple friends who can mix tunes for a party but they’re not DJs. They don’t obsess about their music collections and itch to get home to tryout a transition they might have accidentally heard in between weed coughs at happy hour.

I can wordsmith a bit but I don’t have a deep undying devotion to the written word the way a true writer does. At this particular chapter in my life, at least. For one thing, I don’t even really like to read. Writing is, to me, simply a storytelling tool I have in my utility belt. When those would-be DJ friends are pre-drinking for a day party on the pier, I don’t fantasize about staying home and punching the keys. I go to the party and I’ll get to the writing when it happens.

People seem to dig my writing style. So much so that a few years ago I explored the possibility of pursuing it harder. I wondered if writing is the thing I should maybe do more of so that maybe I’ll get more followers and maybe I’ll like myself and my career more maybe. So peaked was my potential maybe interest in potentially writing more professionally maybe that I dropped a line to my friend and mentor, writer Mike Sager.

We don’t talk a ton but every conversation I’ve had with Mike has been, by design, a pivotal one. He is a mentor I reach out to when I’m at a creative fork in the road and he’s always had great wisdom to share. (Which is funny because his take on it is that I reach out to him when I already know what I’m going to do and I just need a little nudge.) So I sent him an email with links to a couple of blogs to see what he thought. I asked if he thinks there’s maybe something there and if it’s something I should maybe explore further maybe. I received no response. None at all.

Which he’s never done before or since. It wasn’t until a couple of days later that I started to think maybe my email was premature. Mike Sager is a seasoned and celebrated professional writer and journalist. He’s reading and responding to like 700 emails in between working on his books and Esquire and Vogue assignments and here I was going “hey can you read my blog and tell me if I should do what you do?”

The embarrassment settled in. I spent some time cringing to myself, fully accepting the probability that probably flew right past him. No harm no foul. Decided to just keep my silly thoughts to myself and go back to writing sporadically for blogs and such. Forgot all about it. Years passed by.

Recently I discovered that he’d released a new audio version of his book about Carlos Castaneda. As I clicked through to hear an audio clip I had this flash of clarity, suddenly remembering that time, long ago, when I’d asked Mike if I should maybe be a writer maybe.

Mike didn’t not respond to me because he was offended or didn’t have time or whatever other story I might’ve momentarily concocted in my insecure head… He didn’t respond to that email because everything about my inquiry screamed that I wasn’t serious. He is a mentor and a friend and he’s always made time for me when I’ve asked for it. Knowing him, he may have legitimately meant to respond but the day got away from him in between all the other legitimate inquiries. Writers who weren’t asking him “hey do you think maybe I should write maybe?” Having the clarity I have now about the toothlessness of my email, I’m certain he has no recollection of even having received it to begin with.

I know that because that’s where I’m at now in my creative career. When there’s no power or energy behind a person’s passive message to me about a podcast or photography project, I’m more likely to skim past and forget that the person even messaged me at all. It doesn’t happen often, but from time to time I do suddenly remember a random Facebook Messenger DM that I never responded to. Because when people ask me for my thoughts on if they should be a photographer, I don’t really have an answer for them either. I want, more than anything, to hug the whole world and encourage everyone to go make all the art! But we all only have so much energy to spread around. Yes you should go out and make photos! You should write and you should start a podcast if you are feeling called to! If you message me asking for my feedback, I really do my best to get back to you. You know, after I finish responding to the other emails and completing the photo editing that I’m nearing a deadline for. But if your going out to take your next photo is dependent on some other photographer giving you permission to do so, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

Artists don’t art because someone gives us approval. We do it because we’d quite possibly just whither away into nothingness if we didn’t make art. Very few writers begin that long uphill road inspired by the piles and piles of cash writers get to sit on from the super lucrative profession of writing. They write because they can’t not write.

 

I can easily not write.

I really enjoy it when spirit taps me with inspiration but I can also simply go do something else. Honestly even now, as I type these words, it’s a clear blue sky kind of day in Brooklyn and I’m looking outside and planning my escape from this coffee shop.

I’ve heard this story about one of the world’s most famous stand up comics, the accuracy of which I cannot confirm, so I will not say his name. It was discussed on a podcast that when young comics corner this famous comic at some restaurant or backstage to grill him about career advice, he’s been known to simply say “Quit. Give up right now. You’re never gonna make it.” He supposedly leaves it at that and ends the conversion. A younger Arash might’ve heard that story and gotten stuck on what a dick this guy might be. But this famous comic’s thought supposedly was that if you’re doing it for anyone else, if you’re doing it for the approval of anyone outside of yourself, he is doing you a huge favor by saving you years of heartache. If this one guy whom your entire industry idealizes tells you that you suck but you keep your head up and keep it pushing, you deserve your spot in your industry. But (like we used to say on so many episodes of Crappy Awesome Podcast) if you do have a Plan B, you should just save yourself a lot of time and go with Plan B.

It was comic books as a child, then movies as a tween and then music videos as a beginner artist that got me started on this journey that lead to professional photography. I wanted to draw comics but realized I hated the repetitiveness of panel work. I wanted to make movies but it felt like a million years away. I wanted to keep making music videos but felt discouraged by the return on investment of energy and resources. Then photography started paying my rent. I liked that it had a fairly rapid beginning, middle and end to it. I like that I get to shoot a thing and then move on to the next thing without committing years of my life to the same subject.

In the past few months, I’d felt a calling to dig back into filmmaking because my partner works in film. I watched her going through the preproduction of a couple of music videos and realized I really missed it. After a couple of less than ideal experiences, I’d hung up my underground Hip-hop music video director’s chair to focus on still images. Falling in love with a brilliant and talented woman who is exactly where I’d dreamed of being at her age in my creative career had inspired a longer glance in the rear view mirror, second guessing some of my decisions.

What a blessing that she’s so supportive and open in sharing her community and experiences. While in New York, and thanks to her, I got to spend time on sets. Shooting behind the scenes photos of her working on a short fashion documentary, among other film industry adventures, was the absolute most perfect way for me to dip my toes in to see if I even like the water. I don’t know if I do yet, to be honest, and I’ve had enough creative side adventures at this point to really value the temporary nature of some of these experiences. Years of living the artist life has demonstrated for me that simply liking something, and even actually being really good at it, is not enough. You gotta love it, warts and all.

I do love movies. Populist storytelling on a grand scale moves me. Movies have the capacity to introduce people to other cultures and worlds and plant seeds into the general consciousness and all that really inspires me. I like the idea of getting to play with music and words and actors. I’ve been wondering for a long time if I’d enjoy directing more if I can focus on the acting rather than juggling every single other thing like I used to with my zero-budget underground music videos. I love that filmmaking is a collision of literally every single art form. In fact I was told by a director years ago that editing is basically the only thing that makes film it’s own genre of art.

I watched my partner, Lana Boy, in action. I notice that she’s inspired by visual storytelling techniques I’ve never even considered and I wonder if that’s because I’ve been out of the game for so long or if I simply don’t have the talent to see the world the way she does.

Or maybe I just don’t have the love. Lana is brilliant and dynamic in her energy and capabilities. She and her friends cut each other off and talk over each other with excitement about the industry even when they’re venting about it’s baggage. I may love movies, but she loves film and filmmaking. I’ve made videos, but she is a filmmaker.

Artists go through phases of liking and not liking what we’re making. But I guess it feels kind of good to at least have the clarity I have now regarding photography; that I can’t imagine a life where I don’t shoot still images. Because for a minute there, I was worried that I might’ve spent all these years developing my photographic eye only to be over photography in New York minute. I missed my ex, filmmaking, but that didn’t have to mean that I was signing the divorce papers with photography. I have insecurities and doubts about my talent, especially after having spent some time in New York and seeing the insane level of talent and energy in Bushwick. I don’t quite feel like my full voice is being utilized and I don’t feel that inner gut kind of satisfaction I’m striving for with some my work. But… My mind is still returning to photography.

Jury’s still out on film for me. I have a couple of projects up my sleeve to see how warm the water really is and I’ve discovered a feeling of excitement about incorporating lessons learned from New York’s filmmaking culture into my photography and podcasting. I have no plans of abandoning still imagery as a storytelling expression which is actually a huge relief, to be honest. Because here I am, not even sure if I even like my work, and the possibly of putting down the camera has not even crossed my mind.

Mike Sager knew this.

If one is a writer, they’re not emailing him and asking if they should maybe be a writer. If one is a comic, they’re not going to give a damn if their idol was mean to them at some party.

Creative doubts and side missions are normal and healthy. Possibly even necessary. Perhaps uncertainty is an integral part of the creative process because absolute certainty is often the prelude to stagnation.

Since I return to San Diego, I’ve been planning to explore music some more. And the thought of asking my DJ friends if maybe I should hasn’t even crossed my mind.

Watch Lana Boy’s Vimeo Staff Pick here and check out this excerpt of Mike Sager’s audio book on Carlos Castaneda here.

The images accompanying this writing are stills from the last music video I ever directed. The song was named Strip and was by Fifty50, a Hip-hop duo made up of Miki Vale & Queen Kandi Cole. Learn more about that collaboration here. The model in the featured image atop this post is Anita Dias. She is a poet.

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