Behind the Cover:
About the Creators
Arash & Adan Team up
for Igniting Pride

Words by Revekka Balancier

Photos by Arash Afshar

& Tori Massie

Model & Stylist: Adan Guerra

Our discussions on “Igniting Pride” start simply enough – I mean, it’s Pride – our perfect opportunity to do a glamorous cover shot, I envision colorful make-up and shimmering gold glitter. Our founder, Arash, and I have been talking about doing high fashion shoots. Rainbows and fire offer so many opportunities…

However, Arash has a different direction in mind. We discuss expectations. We discuss possibilities. What ignited Pride? Stonewall. 

JH crew starting the Ignite Cover photoshoot; Shayan Rajabi , Arash Afshar, Adan Guerra, Revekka Balancier and Donut are in the shot

Creative Concepting: Igniting an idea for a unique Pride photo shoot

“Subverting expectations is very important to me.” Arash says. “How do we look at ignite as an emotion? How do we create the feeling of ignite in your heart, rather than flames.”

Stonewall brings very different imagery to mind. Riots. Brutality. Violence. “I want to think about what people expect and then think about how we go in the opposite direction.” 

Focusing on the fight would certainly do that. Our goal then becomes to capture how something as brutal and cruel as what happened at the Stonewall Inn fifty years ago could ignite something as beautiful and as colorful as Pride has become today. We have our concept.

“Adan is back,” I tell Arash, “he can be our make-up artist.”  

Arash looks at me, “He can be our model.” 

I smile, “He can be our model. I’ll talk him into it.”

Approaching an artistic vs. a commercial shoot

We meet on the corner of Kettner and Palm in San Diego, in the no man’s land between Little Italy, Mission Hills and the Marina District – a fairly nondescript corner with an unsightly power station looming on one side of the street, complete with chain link fence and barbed wire. On the other side is a concrete wall with a sliver of sidewalk leading to a concrete tower lined with metal bars – a sticky, smelly ramp leading to a thin, caged walkway that takes you over the freeway. So much for glamour. 

Adan and I arrive together and fuss over the last touches of make-up in the car. “We have to have some color,” I tell Adan, and he frowns at me. “I don’t do color. You already talked me into being on-camera instead of behind it.” I pull out my favorite MAC Midnight pressed pigment – “just a little pop of color” I tell him, handing him the deep blue shadow. I continue fishing around. “And this!” Adan expertly applies the Guerlain Blonde Metal to the inner corners of his lids, blending perfectly with the coppery tone he has in his crease. I see the oh so subtle illusion of a flame coming together on his lids. 

Editor in Chief Revekka Balancier adjusting outfit to Adan Guerra for the Ignite Cover photoshoot while Ramiro Martinez is chilling on the scene
Tori Massie arriving to the Ignite Cover photoshoot
Creator Tori Massie takes a selfie leading JH crew parade on the Ignite photoshoot

“How come these never look this way on me?” I ask him. 

We get out of the car to meet Arash, ‘What happened to the color?” he asks looking at Adan’s black t-shirt paired with black jeans. “I don’t do color.” Adan repeats in exasperation, “I don’t actually own anything other than black. I looked.” He shows us a duffle bag full of black clothing options to prove his point… It’s too hard for us not to laugh.

Arash’s rioters begin to arrive one by one. The always adorable Tori Massie is wearing a crossover crop top and peek-a-boo leggings. Shayan Rajabi said he couldn’t find any riot gear, but found this kind of gray hoodie bib, so he wore that. Ramiro Martinez is wearing jeans – cuffed James Dean style – and he’s brought Donut with him, the cutest, most non-threatening pit bull you’ve ever seen.

“Okay…” says Arash. Tori says she has hoodies in the car, but they fit the guys so skin tight, it’s not even cute. Adan comes to the rescue with his duffle bag full of non-colorful black clothing. As we are chatting about the shoot a few weeks later Arash admits, “My rioters arrived looking more techno than riot. But I thought, hey – this is what I got. Let’s go with it.”

“When I am approaching a commercial shoot, I am more direct. I am creating a very specific product experience that we are selling to an audience.” Arash lays out the difference later as we discuss the shoot over drinks. Having spent over twenty years in marketing, I know this process well. We plan every prop, every accessory, frame every scene on a spreadsheet, with a twelve-week production timeline working backward from a run date.

“Creating art is about interpretation, and it’s okay if people don’t all have the same interpretation.” Arash tells me. “This isn’t about selling to an audience, this is about connecting to an audience, which simply means connecting to the right energy, and letting the art create itself.” 

“In a shoot like we did for Igniting Pride – I don’t rigidly create what I want to see or sell,” Arash continues. “I am just planting the seed, that lets everyone create more art. It should be an interactive experience.”

“I become really focused on making sure everyone’s energy comes together. The direction I provide on shoots tends to be ‘Yes! Give me more of that!’”

Reaching a Creative Climax: The Peak of Our Pride Shoot

Once the rioters are in their gear, and we have Adan buckled into his accessories, Arash begins facilitating the collaborative process, “Let’s start here on the corner and work our way up.”

Arash is the perfect balance of intention and spontaneity on set. He and Adan move around each other as if choreographed. “Adan is my favorite photographic collaborator and one of my direct inspirations for starting Justified Hype,” Arash tells me. 

“We started on the ground with these upward looking shots – then began moving up the structure, moving up the camera angle as we went, creating this feeling of rising up from the pits of hell. I wanted people to see this series and think, we’ve gone through all of this. Adan did such a great job expressing the ideas we needed – frustration, revolution, emotion, release…”

The creative chemistry is undeniable. The on-set energy is palpable and the mood is relaxed and comfortable even given the subject matter. “I love working with Arash. I can always count on him to go with an unexpected approach. Unexpected has always given me my edge,” Adan discusses his experience on the shoot. “I have always been a little different, a little out of the norm. Not going with the expected is freeing. I never have to feel like a robot, doing what is expected of me.”

Adan talks about finding his creative inspiration, “the creative concept is the platform – that is the foundation and the most crucial part when collaborating and bringing a vision to life. But then we build from there…”

“There’s a stereotypical Pride image of bright and colorful neon, pink flamingos, fruity cocktail drinks, barely there bikinis…But as we were climbing through the shoot, I was glad we were doing this concept instead. Pride as a movement carries an emotional connection for me and the symbolism of the climb wasn’t lost on me.”

“At first, I was skeptical about being in front of the camera, I kept telling myself, no, no you can’t, you do make-up, you are not a model.” Adan confesses his self doubts. “But then I thought, that is what others tell me.”

“When we started the shoot, down on the ground, down in the pits, I admit, I did still feel insecure. As we started climbing, and I started opening myself up to our little creative team and to this process, my confidence began building. By the time we reached the summit, I remembered, after everything I have been through, after everything everyone with a similar experience to mine may have been through, I can take pride in my craft, I can take pride in my identity. Here I am. Here we are.”

Arash Afshar photographing Adan Guerra on the street
JH crew on set, lead by Arash Afshar to get Ignite cover shot
Creator Adan Guerra looking at the camera with dancing shadows behind him
Arash Afshar giving direction to Adan Guerra for the next shot.

The Universe puts you where you are supposed to be...

Adan has been on a hiatus of sorts, no social media, resetting after a difficult period. “When I decided it was time to re-enter the world, I had to choose carefully what relationships and activities would be right for me. I feel alive again. The Igniting Pride cover shoot is my first collaboration with Justified Hype and feels like a “big reveal” as a member of this collective and newly found family.” 

Arash and I run back and forth through the photos as we discuss the shoot. The entire team is in agreement on the cover photo – the look of triumph at the summit is everything we could want in a hero shot. But Arash also points out a personal favorite, “I just love this smirk. This disregard for the shadows behind him, this confident look toward the future.”

Our first plan for a shoot fell through and we ended up at the concrete tower by default – it was the perfect location. Arash believes in listening rather than controlling, “Rather than trying to force things into a predetermined vision, I just let the universe nudge you one way or another.”

Arash has let that guide his choices and define his art. “Freedom inhibits creativity. I thank the universe for the limitations it hands me. It forces me to think of another way. The more I trust the art, the more I trust the universe, there it is, winking at me, winking at the audience.”

Arash has a vision for Justified Hype, “I want our work to keep pushing forward, in general people aren’t pushing themselves enough. It’s not the easy route, how do we go a little bit deeper?”