Payam, Photographer

Payam photographerWe sat down recently with ADC member and photographer Payam to discuss his craft and penchant for lighting and portraiture. Payam is an award-winning Advertising, Editorial Celebrity and Portrait Photographer based out of New York and Los Angeles. Payam also shot the ADC Hall of Fame exhibit built by Kevin O’Callaghan, and even convinced the ‘monumental’ artist to pose for a portrait.

ADC: There are literally millions of photographers out there. What do you think photographers have to do to set themselves apart from the crowd?

Payam: Photography is a multi-faceted form of communication requiring equipment and technical know-how, inspiration, motivation, love etc., most importantly however; it’s about expressing a visual opinion.

It has taken me a long time to discover what my opinion of the world is and how I can express it technically and aesthetically. I constantly strive to have a more clear and concise way of expressing my opinion as I develop my visual vernacular.

The way to set oneself apart from the crowd I think takes a lot of inner reflection about who one is and how he fits into this world and what he wants to say about the world in which he lives. The strongest photographers have a very distinct way of expression and that clearly requires a great deal of talent but I also think that they stayed true to themselves and invested their energy in enhancing and refining their own work.

ADC: You have a real knack for lighting and portraiture. What is it about these focuses that attracts you?

Payam: I gravitated towards portraiture because I have a great affinity for people from all walks of life. I think it was my early exposure to a wide variety of people with whom I lived at a young age, as I grew up in a refugee camp.

Portraiture allows me to have an experience with someone drastically different from me and this to me is a great gift. Capturing an exchange with my sitter as honestly as possible without projection of my opinion is truly a remarkable yet rewarding challenge that I am happy to meet on every assignment.

I fell in love with cinematic and moody lighting after watching Blade Runner and being introduced to the work of Caravaggio. This love affair became only more intense once I moved to NYC from California. I witnessed how beautiful the night can be as I roamed the streets and witnessed so many different colors and so much depth. I slowly applied what I witnessed in my surroundings to my photography and enjoyed creating a canvas where depth and color played a large role in creating a more in-depth narrative. My work has lightened up as I’ve started to shoot more on the West Coast though I very much attempt to maintain the same qualities and approaches to lighting as I had when I was shooting exclusively in NYC.

ADC: Being from Iran and having traveled the world quite a bit for assignments, what is most interesting location you’ve shot so far?

Payam: A few years ago, I was assigned to photograph the Japanese subculture in Tokyo for Trace Magazine. I arrived at the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku and started having the “ Lost in Translation” experience. I swear I thought I was stuck in the same movie, except, I had no indiscretions with a sexy and neglected wife of a clueless photographer, nor did a Japanese prostitute greet me at my door, adamantly requesting that I “lip her stockings”.

With a local producer, I was on a hunt for Japanese Rastafarians, Visual Kei and the Lolita amongst others. I was completely amazed by the Tokyo neighborhoods and their inhabitants and how gracious and welcoming they were. The lens to me is a key with which I can open certain doors, and it was definitely fun to be invited into the Japanese subculture world and be given a small insight.

In addition to that assignment, I was also asked to shoot a beauty story at the Park Hyatt, the day of my departure no less. The call time for the crew and the model was at 6 AM and I was in the lobby about 15 minutes earlier to greet them as they arrived on time. I was completely taken back when I realized that my crew had arrived at the lobby way before me and were waiting for me way in advance of the call time. The diligence with which the crew worked blew me away! The hair and makeup artists were meticulous at their craft and the entire team worked at 200% of their capacity to finish the shoot before my car picked me up at 10 AM for Narita. And thus started my love affair with the Japanese.

ADC: Was it challenging to shoot Kevin O’Callaghan’s exhibit at the ADC Gallery?

Payam: It was an absolute pleasure working with K.O., as it was a collaborative process with a creative whose vision and opinion I respect a great deal. We discussed various elements of the shoot from the wardrobe to the final execution and I could not have been happier with the collaborative camaraderie that I had with Kevin.

One of the challenges that I experienced during the shoot was creating a photograph of a half carousel at the ADC and making it appear as though it was shot at a carnival somewhere on Coney Island. I accomplished his by careful layering of light and the use of colored gels and spotlights to give the photograph depth and dimension all at the same time ensuring that Kevin looked amazing.

The other unexpected challenge, which I did not foresee was that the entire carousel, was not load bearing. As such, the positioning of the lighting had to be done in a very meticulous fashion by my assistants since the wrong move would have spelled disaster. Kevin luckily knew exactly where to sit and with the help of his team we were able to execute a beautiful photograph.

ADC: In addition to beautiful portraiture, you’ve done quite a bit of work for ad agencies. Which do you prefer: Agency work, Editorial or your own personal projects?

Payam: I think balance is the most important thing in life, mentally, physically, emotionally, psychologically, creatively etc.

I love collaborating with agencies on big projects, from the initial creative conference call to execution, I love working with a team and being part of a larger process. Some of the most rewarding experiences that I’ve had have been during collaborative pro bono projects where I have been an integral part of the team and have participated during the entire project from inception to completion. Being exposed to the way a creative director or copywriter thinks has been absolutely wonderful, and being able to participate in that creative process has been priceless. I love being mentally challenged by others and being forced to think outside of the photographer’s box.

Editorial and personal projects give me greater flexibility to experiment and work freely with my vision. Clearly there is still a client to answer to when I shoot editorial projects but they are more flexible with ideas that I suggest after having done some obsessive research and conceptualization. Personal projects have the greatest freedom, though they also need a lot of TLC and energy to push to completion. It’s a labor of love though its fruits taste incredibly sweet.

ADC: You worked with some of the top names in the photography business. What was the most important thing you learned during this experience?

Payam: The greatest lessons I’ve learned have come from some of the most talented and amazing Creative and Art Directors who I’ve either worked with or been mentored by over the years. I was encouraged to view a project though their eyes and reassess the way I saw a photographic process. By being forced to think differently, I was naturally placed out of my element and had to readjust to new forms of thinking and seeing, which I am forever grateful for.

Norman Watson and Wolfgang Ludes were two photographers who work on the opposite end of the spectrum. Norman, who loves dark moody photography and Wolfgang, who works in the realm of the high key photograph. Over some years I became proficient at working on both ends of the light spectrum and manipulating light to have it fulfill my needs. It was during this time when I was entrusted the task of being the lighting director, for very big Advertising and Editorial projects. I quickly had to learn to work with very big teams of assistants and film crews. I had to become proficient in diplomatic language while delegating duties and keeping calm during stressful shoots while communicating with the ad agency team and photographer.

ADC: They say “a picture tells a 1,000 words.” Do you try to tell a story with your photography, or are you more interested in documenting a story as it’s already happening?

I think it’s a combination of the two, sometimes more in one direction than the other. I came into photography as a photojournalist where my job required me to be as invisible as possible while being right in the middle of the action. Over the years I’ve had to adopt a more assertive and participatory role in the creative process during a shoot by not only observing the qualities, characteristics and demeanor of the sitter but also by directing them in such a way that their physiognomy is enhanced and brought out through encouragement and direction.

The question almost entirely relies on what I am shooting and what I’m trying to accomplish. In an ad job, I’m mostly working with professional talent who has had a rundown of the brief and know how deliver it to the camera. Everything in an ad job is pretty much scripted, so in a sense the story has already been written, and my job is to fine-tune the story and enhance the role of the actors by directing them.

When I’m shooting an editorial project the experience is entirely different and raw as the story starts to enfold as soon I meet my subject. I used to be a compulsive researcher and do a tremendous amount of preproduction before the shoot to ensure that there were no surprises. The little tid bits of knowledge I bring up about them in conversation always surprise my sitters. I find that gives them a sense of familiarity and comfort and naturally disarms them to trust me in front of the camera. The preproduction however, also kept me from approaching a shoot more fluidly and allowing the surprises to guide the shoot more intuitively and organically, so I had to loosen up a bit.

In working with real people and situations, there are times where I have to act as part diplomat, part psychologist, part psychic and part party pal in order to work through challenges that arise in order to be able to do creative dance whose end result is a beautiful photograph.

ADC: What celebrity would you love to shoot a portrait of?

Payam: My wish list of the people that I’d like to photograph is not exclusive to celebrities. Although it would be a great pleasure to work with some of the greats such as Jack Nicolson, Morgan Freedman, Jennifer Connely, Lady Gaga, Angelina Jolie and Nicole Kidman, I would also like to work with influential people outside of the entertainment industry. It would be a dream for instance to have a sitting with H.H. The Dalai Lama, Stephen Hawkins, Presidents Obama, Nelson Mandela and other greats in their own respective sphere’s of influence. It’s perhaps out of selfish reasons for wanting to have such sittings, because I’m sure that I would have some amazing conversations with people who I’ve wanted to have a discourse with all of my life, and getting a photograph of that experience to boot?…Priceless-

Below are some of Payam’s shots of the Hall of Fame exhibit, built by Hall of Famer and 3D Designer Kevin O’Callaghan. To see more of Payam’s work, visit