Shayan Asgharnia Shares His Most Memorable Roots Picnic Portrait Stories
The Roots Picnic is one of the country’s biggest, most jam-packed, celebrated summer music events. Founded by the legendary Roots crew from Philly, the event has featured performances from indie acts (Solange Knowles), then-budding hip-hop stars (Wiz Khalifa, Mac Miller) and certified icons (Snoop Dogg). Now entering its tenth year, the 2017 Roots Picnic enjoys a milestone that very few festivals have the luxury of commemorating.
The Grammy Award-winning hip-hop band once again take over Festival Pier at Penn’s Landing as the aforementioned Solange Knowles, Lil’ Wayne and Pharrell Williams serve as the lead musical ambassadors for the weekend’s (Saturday, June 3) festivities. With Jeezy, 21 Savage, Thundercat, Michael Kiwanuka, Pete Rock, Playboi Carti and countless others gearing up to put on a show — we here excited to let you know that photographer extraordinaire Shayan Asgharnia will be chronicling the 2017 Roots Picnic behind-the-scenes.
For those unfamiliar, the big beard badass is an editorial and advertising genius. His work has appeared on the pages of GQ Magazine, the Wall Street Journal and Inc. Magazine, with names such as Erin Brockovich, Werner Herzog and Jeffrey Tambor on his portfolio. Born in Iran, raised in Texas, this jet-setting boss is friendlier than he looks, smarter than the average Instagrammer and all about being a creative.
In honor of its 10th anniversary, we tapped Shayan to share his favorite stories as a backstage photographer working the Roots Picnic.
I started shooting portraits backstage at the Roots Picnic in 2015, and I’m honored this will be my third year. What I love so much about the Roots Picnic is that unlike most other music festivals, this one feels like family. All of these talented human beings come together in one space, and they bring with them respect, love and history. Here are my six favorite portraits (in no particular order):
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson:
This will be the fourth time I’ll have photographed Questlove. I’m only slightly joking when I say I’d like to publish a coffee table book of Questlove x Shayan throughout the years. I just hope he won’t be too sick of me if he isn’t already.
As a drummer myself, Questlove has been legendary for as long as I’ve known his work. He’s an artist who has transcended his genre and medium to become an American icon. Aesthetically, the first time I photographed him is my favorite portrait of the ones I’ve taken so far. If I’m lucky enough to continue in this career, I hope it will be seen as one of my most iconic photographs.
I photographed my fellow 214 resident, Ms. Erykah Badu, at the 2015 Roots Picnic. We weren’t certain that we’d get her to come in for the portrait, but my assistants and I stuck around after the show ended for even the smallest chance to get that shot. At about 12:30 a.m., the lovely badass that is Okayplayer’s Ginny Suss came out to tell us Erykah was coming our way, and when she came to us, she floated. Anyone who’s spent even 10 seconds in her presence knows what I mean. She gave me a hug and took a seat for us to shoot, showing us nothing but grace and kindness from the first frame to the last. They say not to look into her eyes for too long, but I’m glad I did.
After 44 frames, knowing she might be tired and believing I had the shot, I decided to call it in, to which she responded, “That’s it? Let’s shoot some more!” and called her assistant to bring her Mykita visor. Even though the visor covers most of her face in this particular portrait, her incredible beauty as a human being and soul shines through in a mysterious way that makes it my favorite image from my short time with her.
Again, having grown up in Texas, anytime I meet a fellow Texan, the bond is instant. Such was the case with Leon Bridges, who was the first person I photographed at the 2016 Roots Picnic.
Normally, we have someone to help wrangle subjects over to our set, but after setting up and shooting some test shots with my team, one of my guys told me Leon was sitting just behind us. I went up to the gentleman, introduced myself with our secret Texas handshake and asked him if he’d come over for a quick snap, to which he kindly obliged. Aside from his voice, there’s a calming effect in his nature that I believe can only be experienced by simply looking at any portrait of him. He’s the sort of artist I hope to photograph again in 25 years and see where life has taken us.