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Prince’s Personal Photographer Afshin Shahidi Shares His Favorite Images and Memories of the Purple One

13 minute read

As Prince’s longtime photographer and videographer, Afshin Shahidi got to know a side of the late musical icon that was rarely seen by the public. Shahidi’s time with Prince spanned over two decades, running the gamut from photographing the singer’s legendary Hollywood parties (where anyone from Stevie Wonder to Matthew McConaughey could be spotted jamming with the Purple One) to playing games of pick-up basketball between video shoots at Paisley Park. In fact, for all intents and purposes, Shahidi was just as integral to Prince’s life as a friend as he was as a collaborator.

For Shahidi, who grew up in Minneapolis where Prince was a local hero, working with “The Kid” was the chance of a lifetime — so golden of an opportunity that he stretched the truth about his experience with video work so he could work on the set of a music video at Paisley Park in 1993. It was a job that would lead to years of collaboration with Prince in both photography and video work and it started the first day they met. “He singled me out that very first day. All I could was just stare at him. Beforehand, everyone had said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t stare at Prince.’ He was up there, playing his guitar, doing a solo, and I just stood there in awe. And you know, I’m Iranian, and Minnesota at the time was not very diverse. So l looked different from the rest of the crew. So, you know, he saw me and he came down and was like, ‘Who are you, what’s your name?'”

By 2001, Shahidi had become Prince’s personal photographer, documenting everything from the singer’s famed (and star-studded) parties in Hollywood to his worldwide “One Night Alone” tour. Now, Shahidi is sharing his intimate view of Prince, with a new book Prince: A Private View that celebrates the career and life of the musician.

Ahead of the book’s release, TIME spoke with Shahidi to talk about his photographs and his fondest memories of the Purple One.

TIME: You worked with Prince for two decades. What’s your favorite personal Prince memory of all time?

When we were in Japan, he had a few days off from before his next concert so he asked me if I wanted to go back to Tokyo and hang out. So the two of us and his bodyguard took the bullet train to Tokyo and that night we went to The Blue Note and saw Chick Corea play. I’m a huge jazzhead, so that was a special treat that I didn’t know was going to happen. We were up really late and then as we were headed to the hotel, Prince tells me, “Hey, tomorrow, get dressed and be down early, we’re going to go out.” I asked, “Hey, what are we doing?” And he just said, “You’ll see.”

Even though I didn’t sleep much and obviously, he didn’t either, I was up and dressed and ready. We got into a limo and got dropped off in some nondescript neighborhood in Tokyo and it turns out we were going to church. So it’s just Prince and I at church together in Tokyo, amongst a bunch of Japanese people. I didn’t understand a word they said, it was just the most surreal moment for me. It made me smile, like “Wow, I’m really sitting here in church with Prince in Japan and nobody is paying us any mind, like we’re not even there.” It was beautiful.

There’s always been such an air of mystery around Prince because he was such an icon – what do you think people would be surprised to know about Prince?

One, he was extremely shy. Not with the core people that were around him but when he was out and about with people who didn’t know him, he could be shy and soft-spoken. The other thing is that he had a wicked sense of humor, which would come out all the time. He was a practical joker, he was a wisecracker, it’s something that you didn’t always see. I tried to put a couple images in my book where we were walking in the airport in Japan and as soon as there was no one around, he acted like he was the bodyguard to his bodyguard and tried to block my camera from taking a picture. Whenever he would crack a joke or do something , it would make everyone laugh, especially himself.

Was he actually a great basketball player like everyone says? Did you ever play with him?

Yeah, he was! The story was that he was actually really good in high school and if he had been taller, he actually might have ended up going and pursuing basketball and the world would have missed out on all his music. But we would play basketball at Paisley Park on the back loading area which was also kind of where Studio B, where we would shoot things.

One of those times, I accidentally hip-checked him and knocked him to the ground and I was like, “Okay, that’s the end of my career here.” And then I went over and I picked him up and he gave me a smile and he said, “Okay, you better watch yourself.” I came to learn that he was good at just about everything, He was a good pool player, he was a great ping pong player. He could play the guitar better. He enjoyed playing those things and he enjoyed people thinking that he probably isn’t good and then showing them that he could beat them.

Another thing that I think we’ve always known but don’t always talk about is Prince’s social justice work. Did you witness how he cared for others or his activism?

I witnessed it, but not so much through him showing us, like “Hey, look what I did” — you would have never gotten that from him — but I would hear stories from band members or what I would witness, where so-and-so was sick and Prince paid all of his medical bills. No one would have any idea. When we were on the Musicology tour, he would donate food, instruments, whatever it was that was needed, to the local shelters. I remember going to a women and girls’ shelter with a bunch of good that were donated, Prince didn’t come, took a few pictures and later I asked him, “Do you want me to do anything with these pictures?” and he was like “No, absolutely not.” He wasn’t looking for any credit for any of the charitable things that he was doing; he just felt and knew that it was the right thing to do. In terms of social justice; I mean, obviously, we lost a great musician and I lost a friend but I also think we lost a voice that would have been really outspoken right now in the political climate that we’re in with all of the things going backwards with the administration that we have, so I really feel like we’re missing his wisdom, which definitely would have come out right now.

What do you think was the most challenging part of being Prince’s photographer was?

One of the challenges that I had that was also one of the great things was that I didn’t work with a crew; it could be hard because I had to do everything, but it was also the best thing because it was so intimate and he was so much more open, so available. [Sometimes] he would go and play a 50,000-foot arena and then wouldn’t allow any other photographers in there and I would be the only one, I was truly responsible for having to capture some amazing images because I was the only one who was allowed to photograph him.

What was the most rewarding part of working with Prince?

Personally, for me, it was listening to him and sharing his wisdom with us. He took me and my family under his wing and was very supportive of us creatively. My wife is an actress, my daughter is an actress and he was a big fan of hers. I was a fan before I started working with him, but being there and being able to witness his recording process and to listen to him, where it was just him and I in a room and he picks up a guitar, and plays a song, sings, those are all just moments that in my wildest dreams, I would have never thought that I would have been a part of and those are great memories that he’s left me.

You said he was a big fan of your daughter, Yara Shahidi, who’s probably best-known for her role on Black-ish. Do you know if Prince was a fan of the show as well?

He actually was. It’s kind of funny, we stayed in touch even after I stopped working as frequently with him and there were occasions when we would try to work together, but I was already booked on something because a lot of what Prince did was very last-minute, so I wasn’t always available. But he was supportive of Yara and a couple of months before he passed, he had DM’d her on one of the social platforms, just saying what a big fan he was of the show and that her character was his favorite. That was very sweet. And in that DM, he said, “Say hi to your pops for me.”

Why do you think that Prince trusted you so much to document his life?

I think he got to know me. He got to know my family, and I think he realized that I was passionate about what I did like he was passionate about what he did, so our collaboration benefitted both of us.

Did you ever get over being star-struck by him?

[Laughs] No. But even 15 years in, that would hit me. When other celebrities — and I’m not star-struck, I’ve been in the industry for a long time — but we would be in this situation where J. Lo or Tom Cruise would be in a room and they would be star-struck by Prince and so that would make me star-struck again.

Most memorable performance that you documented?

I think one of his performances that the world knows well is guitar solo at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He had this blistering, amazing guitar solo and at the end, he just threw his guitar up and walked off-stage like the badass that he was.

Yes! The big question is always where did the guitar go?

Well, he had a habit of throwing his guitar and there was always someone there to catch it. Usually his guitar tech was aware that the guitar was going to go flying and he better be in the right place when it came down.

You’re also known for being the only photographer to shoot his private parties in L.A.; do you have a favorite moment from that time?

What was really cool about the parties was that it was a very eclectic mix of people. The parties usually happened around awards season; he’d have them on the night of the Oscars or the Golden Globes and it would be the last party and the hottest ticket, so people would go to the awards, but everyone was really trying to get into Prince’s party. And it would just go into the wee hours of the morning. There would be all the instruments set up and Prince would always play, but it was always open for other musicians or anyone else who was interested to jump in. You’re there and Prince is playing and then Stevie Wonder gets on the keys. Or Alicia Keys is there. Or Justin Timberlake is there. Or in some cases, they weren’t a musician but they’d had enough drinks that they’d think they were and then it would be Matthew McConaughey on the bongos. It was always really, really fun in that respect.

How do you honor Prince and the legacy that he’s left?

Making this book was therapeutic for me. Trying to find closure; everyday, it’s just like, “Really? Prince is gone?” It makes no sense to me still. So I remember him first as a friend and someone who touched me and my family’s life very closely. I mourn him that way, but I also mourn him as a fan and a music lover and the vast amount of amazing music and the archive that he gave us. So it’s funny, some days, I mourn him as a fan, but most days, I mourn him as a friend. He gave so much of himself to the world.

I did it to honor him and a way to let his fans get a glimpse of another side of him that they may not have known. Really, it was all his fans who reached out to me saying, “we know you have these images, make a book, do something.” Like I said earlier, for months, I couldn’t look at any of the pictures I had taken, it just brought back too many memories.

What do you think Prince would think of this book?

The whole time that I was making it and I wanted to make sure that if he was with us and I was sitting with him, he would be like, yeah, this is fantastic, this is great. All of the images are images that he’d seen before that had not ended up on the cutting room floor, so I knew he was happy with all of these images or else they wouldn’t exist right now. I’d like to think that he’s happy right now.

In terms of Beyoncé writing the foreword, I also like to think that if Prince and I were doing this book together and if I had asked him, “Hey, what do you think of Beyoncé writing the foreword to it?” that he would have been like, “Hey, that’s fantastic, let me give her a call.” I think he would be happy with it.

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Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com