Running a home with four men (three of the shorter variety) while managing your own business isn’t an easy feat. But when you’re doing what you love, and have the support of a loving partner, it’s definitely worth it, says fashion photographer Hannan Saleh. Saleh, captured with the help of her husband, scenic artist Calvin Batts, spoke with mater mea about her uncompromising path to becoming a photographer with fans in both the fashion and music worlds, while raising three precocious boys.
Hannan Saleh’s home practically ripples with frenetic, artistic energy. It may have something to do with all the artists under one roof—Saleh is a photographer whose work has appeared in Vibe, Trace, Essence, and a number of other print and online fashion magazines; her husband, scenic artist Calvin Batts.
But something tells us it has a little more to do with the three other residents in their Philadelphia home: their sons, Tesfay (11), Ayo (7), and Idris (5) Saleh-Batts.
“It’s a little tough” being the only woman in the house, Hannan Saleh says with a laugh. “There’s a lot of whining happening. But for the most part, they love and care about each other. Tesfay likes to be the good kid at school, but at home he’s very competitive with his brothers. Ayo’s like Mr. Congeniality. He’s just the cutie pie that everybody knows at school. Idris is a little bit more of an introvert, and he’s the one who likes to dance all the time. He wants to be a pop singer!”
Idris isn’t the only one in the family with big plans. Hannan Saleh, who may be best known for her fashion spreads and street style shots in Essence and Essence.com, is starting to consider where she wants to take her career to next. The family plans on moving to New York City in the coming months as there isn’t much work for Saleh and her husband in Philly; the couple both take turns traveling to New York for assignments—Fashion Week for her, building movie sets for him.
“I’m working on redoing my book, my website, and redefining my vision,” Saleh says animatedly. “I want to see my work not just in black magazines, [but] all across the board. I want to see my work alongside a lot of other working professionals, not just women of color. I would love to work for W [Magazine] or something like that. I just want to be one of the top fashion photographers, along with all [the other] high rollers.”
Hannan Saleh has been working towards those goals for years, after a series of serendipitous events brought her behind a camera for the first time more than a decade ago. Saleh was bitten by the photography bug early, thanks to a trip to Yemen, her parents’ homeland, when she was 8 years old, she says.
“I just remember mental pictures I took of these different memories that I had” from there, Saleh recalls. “I didn’t really realize until later that’s how I remembered everything.”
Though she took pictures here and there growing up, she transformed her photographic memory into a love of painting that she explored in high school.
“I used to paint fashion editorials, Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi book covers… When I graduated, my sister suggested that I go to college for painting, so I went to the Art Institute [of Philadelphia] in ‘95. I took photography instead of painting [because] they don’t really have a painting program.”
Living in Philly during the late ‘90s, Hannan Saleh found herself a member of a ragtag group of talented artists, musicians and free thinkers who’d gather in cafes and houses around the city for jam sessions. The Roots—long before they became one of America’s favorite late-night bands—just so happened to be a part of that group, too.
“I was friends with Nou, one of the members from their crew,” Saleh remembers now. “We used to just go every week to go hang out with them, and we would take pictures while [they] were jamming.”
Those spur-of-the-moment shots led to Saleh taking photos of The Roots and other musicians in the crew to shooting an album cover for Philly-based R&B duo Kindred the Family Soul. Hannan Saleh was quickly becoming a professional photographer by trade (“I was always shooting,” she says) but not necessarily by paycheck; she worked as a bartender at a “funky soul café” to make ends meet for four years. But the job did more than help put a roof over her head—it was there that she rekindled a relationship with the man who would years later become her husband.
“I kind of knew that he’d be the perfect partner for me, and the perfect father for my kids,” Saleh says.
Though Hannan Saleh was certain she had found the right man, she was adamant about one thing before they got serious—that the relationship would not derail her career.
“When I met my husband (Calvin) I told him that photography was my thing, and if he ever got in the way [of] it, it wouldn’t ever work out,” Saleh recalls. “I told him that because I wasn’t dating guys, I was very serious about what I did, and if we were going to get in a serious relationship, I had to let him know.”
Calvin didn’t bat an eye.
“He [was] really into it,” she says with a smile. “He loves it.”
That drive and sure-footedness has led Hannan Saleh from one career success to the next. In 2000 she won the Emerging Artist Award for Arts and Culture from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, a nonprofit organization devoted to the empowerment of black women. Never stopping, her work eventually caught the attention of Essence in 2009. Originally hired to shoot street style for the magazine in Philadelphia, she’s recently become the magazine’s main street style photographer and regularly shoots its fashion spreads wherever they need her.
“It’s so exciting to see my stuff in the mag,” she says. “I love seeing it!”
Now ready to see where her camera will take her next, Hannan Saleh is even more certain that this is the work she was meant to do.
Like with any job, “there’s good things and there’s bad things,” Saleh admits. “But I’d rather be able to provide for my kids doing something that I love than having a job that I hate and being miserable and mean to my kids because I’m mad about my life and the way it turned [out]. You have to listen to yourself.”
HOW HAS BEING A MOM CHANGED YOUR LIFE?
You’re dealing with a lot more responsibility, and the relationship with you and your partner just changes 1000 degrees. (Laughs) It’s really up to you to make sure everything is going to be okay for the little one, and most of the time you’re going to take more responsibility than the dad, of course. And for me, running my own business… It was very challenging trying to figure it out [while] being emotionally stable for your little ones and taking care of them.
One of the things that I did which saved me was I had met some other women who had kids around my children’s age and we hung out almost every day. [We] let the kids play and just kind of built this bond. It was really nice. We were all entrepreneurs, and we had kids, so we just kind of hung out. We had our little dinner parties once a week and did our playdates. That really saved me. If it wasn’t for that, I would have lost it, because it’s just a complete lifestyle change.
WHAT ARE YOUR SONS’ FULL NAMES?
Tesfay Joshua, Ayo Elijah, and Idris Emanuel Saleh-Batts.
CAN YOU TELL US THE STORY BEHIND YOUR SONS’ NAMES?
My parents are from Yemen and my grandmother is Ethiopian, so I really wanted to give them names with some meaning, because my name means compassion. Tesfay is an Ethiopian name, and it means hope. My mother-in-law wanted them to have a Biblical middle name, so that’s why they all have those middle names.
Ayo means joy or happiness, and Idris means righteousness.They all have African origins. Ayo is Nigerian, I think Yoruba. That’s my favorite name, if you ever meet somebody named Ayo, they’re like the coolest people ever.
DO YOUR KIDS UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU DO? HOW DO THEY RESPOND TO YOUR WORK?
They know about the magazines and stuff like that, but I don’t know if they really do yet. I’m planning on training my 11 year old and taking him out shooting with me in the summer when he’s on summer vacation. I don’t want to push photography on all of them, but my oldest son, I think, would like it and he has always showed interest [in it]. I’m going to give him my manual camera and have him start shooting some and see if he likes it.
SO WHAT’S A TYPICAL DAY LIKE JUGGLING YOUR THREE SONS AND THEN YOUR WORK?
It’s a little tough. When they’re going to school, I have a few hours to get the work that I need done. So I try to map out my schedule along with other things like getting groceries and things like that. I’m on the computer a lot, doing research, or editing photo shoots, or sending my stuff out to my clients.
Then I pick them up and I still have a lot of work to do. I was looking at my schedule once and I really only give my company not even like 20 hours a week. When they’re in school, that’s when I can say that I [do work for] my company. But sometimes I have to run other errands during that time, so [I’m] always trying to figure it out. When they come home from school, sometimes they’ll jump on the games, so I can sneak upstairs and get a couple more hours, do a little more work. But I try to set it down when they come home.
IS IT HARD FOR YOU TO SEPARATE YOUR WORK FROM BEING BACK ON MOM DUTY?
Yeah, when my husband’s home, I try to sneak upstairs and just spend the day upstairs, working on my computer and doing different things. And they’ll be like, “You don’t hang out with the family enough, all you do is work!” So it’s tough.
I kind of feel like if I had an office away from home, then I could just leave [and] say, “Look, [these] are my hours that I work.” It would be better, but of course that would be a little expensive for me to have an office, and then to have somebody watch them when I’m working.
Yeah, when I met him, I was coming out of college, and I just really wanted to be a photographer, I wanted to do photography, and I was working towards that. When I first started dating my husband, I showed him my work and he loved it. I said, “You know, this is what I’m trying to do.” And even after we had the babies and stuff—and now when we’re trying to move to Brooklyn—I’ve told him that.
He knew when we first hooked up that I was very serious about my career, and it was [clear] I’m never going to let it go just because I had kids. You have to be honest; I feel like there’s a lot of sacrifices that you make when you’re in a partnership, and that’s not going to be one of them. If anything, it’ll make you guys stronger and happier, and what a good role model [you’ll be] to your children.
WHAT INSPIRES YOUR WORK?
I love to show how powerful and elegant women are. And I love fashion. I feel like fashion is superficial to some, but it’s really in our background and our culture. Our families come from these places [where] they are so used to adorning themselves: wearing these regal fabrics, looking really beautiful, and putting kohl on their eyes… We come from that kind of a background and lifestyle, it’s in our blood.
IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU HAVE AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL EYE ABOUT YOUR WORK.
Yeah, my goal is eventually to travel [and shoot] in different places. I have this series called Royal Antiquities, and it’s about women: defining our regal background and really stepping into it. I really want to continue shooting it, but I want to do it in places across the globe. just have them really kind of resonate, because that’s where the women were, and that’s where they lived, and that’s where they breathed and that’s where they were.
HAVE YOU HAD TO DEAL WITH ANY KIND OF DIFFICULTY BREAKING INTO MORE MAINSTREAM EDITORIAL WORK BECAUSE OF YOUR RACE AND BACKGROUND?
Maybe or maybe not, I’m not sure. I can always say it’s because of my name, or whatever, my name is very Middle Eastern, [but] I feel like those barriers are in our heads. I mean, they are there, but we can break through them, because really, ultimately, talent speaks [for itself]. There are a lot of professionals, and you don’t know what they look like, but they’re shooting for those magazines.
When you’re in the creative industry, your work speaks for itself and it really doesn’t matter what you look like or where you come from. I feel like we create those barriers, and that’s one of those things that holds us down, and we really need to break through our own prisons and our own shackles.
WHAT PERSPECTIVE OR EXAMPLE DO YOU HOPE TO IMPART UPON YOUR SONS THROUGH YOUR WORK?
I want to show them that it does take a lot of work when you’re doing your own thing, but it’s worth it. You [just] have to really believe in it; you have to really believe that it’s going to come through, and that you’re going to be rewarded. All these successful people all started with an idea, and being an entrepreneur is never overnight. Even people like Steve Jobs started from the bottom, and look at their empires now.
WHAT KIND OF MEN DO YOU HOPE YOUR SONS BECOME?
I want them to be really confident in themselves, respect women, treat their ladies right, and just be fair and honest and hardworking. Those are the biggest things. I haven’t really thought about it, I can’t imagine them being there yet. (Laughs) Right now we’re dealing with the stages that they’re in. But I really want them to fulfill their destiny, whatever it is. To find their calling and do what they were meant to do. I just want them to be happy.