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San Francisco local Ariya Behjat is fast becoming one of the most respected photographers in the dance music world. His unique angles and distinct post-processing techniques has landed him some of the industries most coveted gigs, such as shooting for Above & Beyond, Armin van Buuren, Tiësto, Swedish House Mafia, Avicii, and countless others around the world. We met Ariya when he came to photograph our Adrenalin Room label party with Trifonic back in January of this year here in San Francisco and we were blown away with his work. We wanted to talk with him about how he got to where he is now, advice for amateur photographers looking to make their next step, and what it was like taking photos of Arty on the main stage of Ultra Music Festival recently.
Rhodes: O.K. Ariya, thanks for taking the time to talk with us today. My first question for you is how did you get your start in photography, how old were you, and how did you get to the level you’re at now?
Ariya Behjat: When I was fourteen, this photographer who shot for a lot of people and the fashion industry and corporate world– his name is Lasheen Yusuf– he asked me to be a model for him for something, and I said “yeah I’d be more than happy to.” After a couple of shoots he said he was more than happy to have me as an assistant because, you know, I was kind of an artistic guy. I did a lot of drawings and a lot of calligraphy. He said “you might be interested in photography, and you know, I’ll give you a few bucks here and there to be my assistant” and I was like “of course.” I started as an assistant and later on I became his second shooter, so I had a good understanding of composition and what you would want to change in a picture, how to make somebody look good, how to build an atmosphere through photography, and lastly how to compliment a subject to the atmosphere and vice versa. After awhile I helped somebody host a party in the W Hotel called “Elevate”. we had this every Friday and I used to put a budget for a photographer to hire because I took that seriously. After hiring a couple photographers I realized, you know, these [photos] were not that interesting and something I can do, so I got my hands on a camera. It was a white Pentax KX, nothing fancy, and one lens. After shooting a few gigs I realized that not just the artists, but a lot of people used my pictures for their own personal stuff, and I just made better connections with artists. I got a call from EDX. He wanted a photographer for Nocturnal in LA, and I go there with him and end up taking pictures of him at Nocturnal and some club after that. Through that concert I got to meet Morgan Page and Fedde le Grand personally to the point where Fedde le Grand started hiring me and Morgan Page uses my photos whenever he sees me.
Rhodes: That’s really cool man, so how did you end up going to Miami to shoot Ultra Music Festival in march? Did you reach out to Arty? Did he call you? Are you trying to make it to other festivals this summer? What’s going on?
Ariya Behjat: So from that point on, wherever I applied as a photographer it was much easier for me to get hired. As I mentioned before, I get a call from Arty and they wanted me to shoot for him in Miami, and while so, I also heard form Above & Beyond. I try my best to get to every festival possible, like this summer I’m booked to shoot Tomorrowland in Belgium, London for Creamfields, I’m trying to go for Dubai Creamfields, and these are all international And that was actually my dream, and I’m very happy. So yeah thats where i stand right now.
Rhodes: Well good for you man, living the dream. OK, so help me out. I am not a trained photographer and I’m curious- what goes through your head when you’re behind the lens at a huge show? What exactly are you looking for? What are you trying to capture? Can you give us some enlightenment on that?
Ariya Behjat: So whenever I get on stage, the first thing I try to do is not be seen by the audience, especially for something like Above & Beyond. They’re very sensitive as to how strong their visual are and they don’t really want anyone to block it, especially photographers. If you want to get the best shot you need the combination of where you’re close enough that in your frame you have the artist and the audience, but you don’t want any structure of the stage to be there. Especially if you’re on the side or behind the stage you see a lot of the naked structure like a lot of the bolts, a lot fo the ugly things– some of which are cool, but you don’t see the LEDs. They’re all in front of you facing the audience. You really want people who aren’t able to get on stage or people who didn’t make it to the gig to be able to feel that experience of you being on stage. And what I like to do to be different is ask “how can I take pictures of everything except the obvious features?” and I think that is what makes my pictures more interesting to most people.
Rhodes: And what about technologically? is there any special gear you’re using when you travel? Can you tell us about your equipment?
Ariya Behjat: It’s funny. People ask me if I’m a Canon or Nikon head. I’m actually neither. I actually use a Pentax K5. If you asked me to take pictures in a bigger festival, then I’ll rent out something stronger– something that is at least 20 megapixels. But I’m not crazy about Canon head or Nikon head. I’m not crazy about saying this is the newest thing, because it does not make you a better photographer, it makes you a better camera owner. It comes down to the photographer and how you can communicate the visual experience that you’re in now and show it to people that were not there. Or how can you exaggerate it to the sense that the people who were there would not believe they were there. “Oh my god I was just there last night, it’s unbelievable, and I didn’t realize it until I saw it today,” you know? So that’s really the impression you want to leave.
Rhodes: Yeah, speaking of impressions, I personally thing your photographs convey a lot of emotion in them. Even the standard shots you see a lot of other photographers getting. And I think a lot of that has to go with the specific style of editing and coloring that you do in the post-processing So, what do you do when you get home? What kind of software do you use?
Ariya Behjat: So I come from a background of fashion. I know how to use tools like Photoshop, Lightroom or Illustrator, and I go spend hours per picture if I have to- in fact I’m working on a set of pictures for Alesso and one problem that I have right now, for example, is if confetti shoots out in a huge hall, because of the wind the confetti is only on one side. So what I do is make it look like the confetti is coming from both sides.
Rhodes: That’s really cool, actually. What’s another example of a typical request you’ll get from a DJ?
Ariya Behjat: Others DJs ask for their logos to be on the screen even though it was not. That’s something I can do. But again, all this is really to amplify and to make the experience closer to you as a viewer who is not there.
Rhodes: Fair enough! Now, one thing thing I can’t help but ask is what is the story on those small figures you give to all the DJs? For those who aren’t aware, Ariya gives away these tiny little clay doll things that are made to look like the various big name DJs he’s photographing. I believe Above & Beyond used them as their Facebook cover photo for months recently. So what’s the deal on these things?
Ariya Behjat: So I have a friend. Her name is Elena Miller. And what she does is make these miniature sculptures of huge, huge DJs and I pretty much deliver it to them, and they go crazy when they see them. This thing is about like a half inch tall and it’s amazing how well she gets the details. It’s like these bubble heads that look like a characterized version of the artist. So artists like Nervo, Steve Aoki, Tiësto, Above & Beyond, and many others have these and they love it. A lot of them put it on the dashboard of their car at home, one gives it to their daughter when they’re on tour… so they really like like it and take it as a personal thing.
Rhodes: That is so cool. How about you? Do you do anything special?
Ariya Behjat: Uhm, yeah. As for me, I have my white glasses which I have a lot of artists wear when I take pictures of them. Armin van Buuren used that picture for one of his A State of Trance boards on his Tumblr and his website I think, and that was very funny to see. But yeah, at the same a lot of artists are not willing to wear it because they’re specified to some brand. For example, Tiësto is specified to Guess, so he can not wear my Ray-Ban glasses.
Rhodes: Interesting, I never thought about that. Okay, so one final question for ya before we go. If you had one piece of advice for an upcoming photographer, what would it be?
Ariya Behjat: I wish it was just one thing, but the number one biggest factor is don’t shoot for free. Don’t shoot for free. Get the minimum amount. Charge $10 an hour at least, and that is from the time you step out of home. You know, a lot of people don’t understand and think “I’m going to shoot for free to build my portfolio,” but at the same time you’re not just degrading the industry of photography as a whole, but you’re putting yourself down. So don’t shoot for free. For San Francisco I’d say start at $100. These people can afford to pay it- I used to be an event organizer, I know this. No matter how bad the event is, if they want to promote it, don’t get the words “oh it’s publicity for you.” That’s my biggest thing.
Rhodes: Well there you go! Words from a master of his craft and the business that goes along with it. You can hear the full interview on Adrenalin Room Radio #042, and if you’re going to a festival this summer, keep a lookout for a photographer with long dark curly hair wearing white Ray-Ban glasses and be sure to give him a big smile for us. Thanks for your time, Ariya.