Art and soul

The Arts

February 27, 2024

Animal headshots by Shayan Asgharnia

Los Angeles portrait photographer Shayan Asgharnia’s extraordinary images capture the personalities of pets and wild creatures.

by Colony Little | photographs by Shayan Asgharnia

The portfolio of Los Angeles-based photographer Shayan Asgharnia features a pantheon of veritable icons: Henry Winkler, Kerry Washington, Jay Leno and Kamala Harris, to name a few. Through his lens, he’s captured musicians, actors, artists and athletes, while boasting an extensive client list that includes Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar, and The New York Times

When scrolling through his intimate, evocative portraits, a group of images stands out from the rest. They include a steely-eyed Eurasian eagle owl, a shy fawn peering over its shoulder and a perky cockatoo aptly named “Spunky.” 

The menagerie of animal portraits are part of Asgharnia’s ongoing “Anima” series featured last September at TFA Gallery in Myers Park. His photography practice is informed by a sense of curiosity and openness that makes his subjects feel at ease, whether they’re the vice president of the United States or a majestic bald eagle named Franklin. 

Asgharnia was born in Iran and raised in Texas, where he studied documentary film production at the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating, he relocated to LA as a production assistant for music videos and commercials at Milk Studios, where his interest in commercial photography was piqued. 

“There was a photographer on that set taking portraits of Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, and he asked me if I knew how to light. I said ‘No, but if you teach me, I’ll work for you for free.’” From there, Asgharnia worked as a photo assistant for two years. In his spare time he worked with emerging stylists and models, testing and trading on each other’s expertise to build their respective portfolios. 

Asgharnia uses the skills he developed in documentary production to build a rapport with his subjects. “I think of documentarians as curious people who are interested in the lesser-known aspects of a person. They’re able to peel back layers and pierce the walls people put up.” Viewing his portraits, one feels like they are sitting with his subjects over a cup of coffee. Some images capture a gleam in his subject’s eye, as if they are in the midst of telling a fantastical story, while other shots capture a wistful moment or longing gaze. “There’s a sense of quiet to it. I want to get that calmness … and the reality of their existence.” 

His work with animals originated after a chance encounter in a music studio. “While I was shooting in New York, a dog from another studio ran into our studio … it was an old Dalmatian, and the owner ran in apologizing. I actually loved his dog’s face and I asked if he wouldn’t mind letting me take his portrait for a second. That was the first time that I saw that dog’s face. There’s a tangible emotion and personality that I saw that I’m not used to seeing in imagery of dogs.” 

That powerful connection led to a series of volunteer projects highlighting animals and rescue groups. Asgharnia has merged his interests in social justice, photography and documentary work, using his network to help him find animals with important stories to tell through their portraits. One such call to action led him to an organization called Foster Parrots, which operates The New England Exotic Wildlife Sanctuary, a nonprofit avian rescue organization in Rhode Island. In 2021 the sanctuary suffered a tragic fire that took the lives of 95 animals in its care, destroying a significant portion of the facility. Partnering with Smithsonian magazine, Asgharnia photographed many of the surviving birds, sharing the stories of their rescue and of the work the sanctuary provides in rehabilitating exotic birds who have been abandoned by their owners. 

“Shayan had a full sense of how his photography could reach a broad audience and raise awareness, not just about the fire, but also about the global tragedy of birds behind bars,” says Karen Windsor, the executive director of Foster Parrots. Through his efforts, he helped raise over $30,000 to assist in rebuilding the damaged facility. “It takes one heart to truly see another. He can see beauty in things that may not seem beautiful in the eyes of mere mortals, but he knows how to use his camera to make us see. Shayan walks amongst the stars, but he works from his heart,” Windsor says. “I think this gives him the ability to capture the deepest essence of his subjects.” 

Animal portraiture has become a place of sanctuary for the photographer, too; as an animal lover he is emotionally drawn to the work. During his travels across the United States, he regularly hosts pop-up photography events where pet owners can invest in a professional photo shoot. The pop-ups have been wildly successful in Charlotte, where he’s regularly hosted at Tiny Gods Jewelry on Crescent Avenue at $2,500 per session. These endorphin-inducing portrait sessions often yield closely cropped images that capture unique characteristics of each pet, such as a suspended paw high-fiving the air or a scruff of fur on the top of their head. “I want to show these lives and actually have you walk away getting a sense of who they are and not what they are,” he says. 

What continues to draw Shayan to Charlotte, and to photography more broadly, are the animal lovers that have made him feel at home here. “Some of the people I met in North Carolina are lifelong friends now,” he says. He’s hoping to extend his photography work with sanctuaries in North Carolina and is actively looking for new partnerships. “I don’t want to just create images — I want to help.” In the meantime, he’ll be back at Tiny Gods in the spring, connecting souls through his expressive pet portraits. SP

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