Heidi: What type of direction did you get from the magazine?
Shayan: It had been a dream of mine to shoot for my home state and legendary publication, Texas Monthly. Victoria Millner, their art director, emailed me to shoot this assignment, my first for TM. The references she sent from my own work were my portraits of David Crosby, Ed Harris, Billy Dee Williams and my father smoking a cigar and giving two fingers.
Victoria wanted detailed closeups of his iconic face with all the history and weathered grit that comes with it, but she also wanted environmental shots that truly displayed the vast spectrum of the man’s humanity. I love working with Victoria and Claire Hogan, Texas Monthly’s photo editor. They’re so clear with their vision and their understanding of the artist’s vision. Not a modicum of uncertainty to be found in working with them, and they’re kind Texans to boot.
He’s both intense and joyful, how did you bring both of the emotions out?
Danny is intense, but even before I started seeing him in photos with rescue dogs or his smiling face next to donuts and tacos, I knew he had a gentle, fun side thanks to his role as Uncle Machete in Spy Kids. In person, the man is joy and empathy personified; the scowl is more a part of the brand.
Knowing Danny’s love of dogs and prison reform, I arrived with a framed 17×22 print of one of my photos from my personal project, Rescued, a story on a program where rescue dogs live with and are trained by incarcerated men.
While shooting, we spoke at length about rescuing dogs, prison reform, his car collection and the Great State of Texas. He told me one of the funniest stories I’ve heard from one of his recent trips to Texas pre-COVID: while walking around 6th St. with a few of his assistants who also did time in the past, his assistants were getting heated up and wanting to fight with people flashing what they thought were gang signs. Danny laughed out loud and made the sign himself: the good ol’ University of Texas “Hook ’em.” As a Longhorn, I love seeing that image in my head.
After we wrapped the portraits of him, we went into his personal gym and photographed each of his dogs against seamless just for him to have, to immortalize them in a way. Photographing animals is my happy place, and the smile that comes across their humans’ faces makes it that much more wonderful. You want a moment of true happiness? Listen to Danny Trejo babytalk his pups and see the smile on his face as they’re being photographed.
Danny lived a colorful life, how much prep did you do prior to the job?
I don’t prep too much beyond a bit of research on subjects to find some common ground I share with the subject instead of just talking about their work. With Danny, this was simple. We’re both dog rescue people who also share a passion for prison and criminal justice reform. I’ve never been incarcerated, but I spent a few months documenting the Pawsitive Change program at California City Correctional Facility. I didn’t need much of an icebreaker beyond that.
In terms of technicality, I’m not the most technical photographer. I shoot a lot of studio work with strobes, but goddamn, I love working with natural light and merely shaping it with reflectors and negative fill when need be. I wanted the shoot to feel as little like a production as possible. When a shoot feels like a conversation between myself and the subject and we just happen to have a camera nearby, that’s the best.
What did you imagine his demeanor to be, and did that live up to your expectations?
I have a number of friends who have worked with Danny in some capacity throughout the years, and not a single one of them had anything but praise for the man. They were all right; the man is a true gem. As someone who’s been told many times that I look unapproachable and unfriendly until people actually meet me, I get it. I love breaking the barrier between my genetics and my personality.
Describe the vibe on set.
The vibe on set was truly jovial and comfortable. This is one of the perks of being at the home of your subject, especially when your subject keeps it so damn real and lives deep in the Valley. Add cute, friendly dogs running around, and you’re solid. Every shoot should have dogs on hand. While we didn’t take more time than we needed, it felt like we could have continued to hang out beyond the shoot. Danny invited us to come watch fights in his backyard in the future, so let’s hope that offer stands.
Did you direct him or was he naturally falling into form in front of the camera?
My approach to directing a subject is fairly loose. I know the general idea of where I want them to be and how I want them to be, but beyond that, I like subjects to fall into themselves. I’m not trying to create a fantastical scene. I did ask him to bring out some of his cars, I did ask him to pose with his pups and have them all jump into the vehicle, and I did ask him to take off his shirt and bare those tattoos, but beyond that, we go with the flow. I’m more of a people person and a documentarian in my approach as a photographer, so when I’m trying to get something out of someone, I meet them where they are with their energy and emotions on the day. I pick up on these things quickly and adjust subtly enough so I don’t push a subject too far, or worse yet, not push far enough that I lose them. It’s all collaborative.