Seleen Saleh’s portraits highlight the iconic influence of street fashion on popular culture.
For Seleen Saleh, the street, the studio, and nearly everything in between is a potential runway. Before the pandemic, Saleh spent more than a decade following and photographing the unique styles that caught her eye in a series of portraits and now book called “Street Culture.” These heroic images feel like a time capsule to better, less socially distant days. They volley between her personal work and images she shot for Essence Magazine – focusing on people of color while celebrating their influence on global cultural trends.
While she works primarily in fashion, Saleh’s work has many layers. For the photographer – who recently joined The Luupe’s community of women and non-binary photographers – portraiture is about highlighting the individual and creating a unique moment of connection. Whether quick and made on the fly, or a produced and stylized studio shoot for a commercial client, her goal is to create a report with her subjects that feed off of intimacy and energy.
We spoke with Seleen Saleh to learn more about her vision and practice from the street to the studio and somewhere in between.
The Luupe in conversation with Seleen Saleh
The Luupe: Your street portraits feel like they could have been made in a studio and vice versa. Would you agree?
Seleen Saleh: Yes I think it is because of the way I capture the moment. I like to get into a zone where I can feel the place I am shooting and the person. This is where the magic happens and everything aligns.
The Luupe: Across your personal and commercial work, your portraits combine sensitivity, comfort, empathy, spontaneity, and also a sophisticated level of production.
Saleh: Thank you. I strive to connect with my Muses. I do carry a very nurturing energy and this helps me connect with the people I am photographing.
The Luupe: What makes for a great connection?
Saleh: I think it’s someone who focuses on me completely. This way we can communicate with gestures and not necessarily words. This helps on location when it is difficult to hear each other.
The Luupe: The overview for your book Street Culture describes the series as giving “space to those whose contributions may or may not be known.” Why is this so important to you?
Saleh: It was very important for me to make this book. As a young child seeing Naomi Campbell on the cover of British Vogue changed my life. Representation is a part of my mission. Giving a voice to these creatives is necessary. They are visionaries, game-changers, and movers and shakers. I hope they can get the support they deserve.
The Luupe: What draws you to a particular person to make their portrait?
Saleh: It is something that is profound in my Muses. It’s just really a vibe I get from a person.
The Luupe: How did Street Style materialize as a book?
Saleh: I started the book in 2015. I did a Kickstarter for it in 2016 which was unsuccessful, but I was determined to publish it. I do have 2 more books in this sequel to create and one more that is a completely different concept. Creating books was always a long term goal. I spoke to my graphic designer friend about this when we were in college at 22.
The Luupe: How did you get your start shooting commercially?
Saleh: I started shooting for Essence magazine, their Style Openers. It was really exciting. I was able to contribute creatively to the shoots sometimes which was exciting – I loved working with a team. Everyone took pride in what they did and the results were rewarding.
The Luupe: In your commercial and editorial work, do you prefer to work solo or with an assistant? How much do you collaborate with stylists?
Saleh: I like to work with an assistant. This is so helpful when changing scenes etc. I love to collaborate with stylists and see the pieces and give my input, even if it is an additional look. This is always a great opportunity to create something that we can all use for our books.
The Luupe: What was your favorite commercial shoot over the past couple of years?
Saleh: I did a cover and spread for Footwear News of Haily Beiber. This was such a cool shoot. I was able to choose industrial locations in the studio and even tell her how to pose. She was amazing to work with and the spread was great.
The Luupe: Do you have a dream brand or publication you’d like to shot for?
What about someone you’d love to photograph?
Saleh: I would love to shoot with W magazine. That has always been a dream of mine. Also, I would love to shoot with Yasmine Warsom and Naomi Campbell.
The Luupe: Do you have any advice for photographers looking to get into commercial work?
Saleh: Yes, Shoot, shoot, and shoot. Create the work you want to do in your personal projects. This will help you attract that kind of work.
The Luupe: What was your experience like photographing the recent Black Lives Matter protests?
Saleh: Wow, it was profound! It was pretty incredible to see the vast number of people supporting this movement from all walks of life. It is a shift in time from old to new. I always imagined 2020 and beyond to be drastically different than the way things have been. This global shift will hopefully move us into a more balanced and fruitful time for us all.
The Luupe: There’s one photo in particular that really stands out – it’s a sea of police officers in the foreground, with a man in the background, on his terrace, holding his fist in the air in solidarity with the protesters…
Saleh: This image was super powerful because as we were walking up the street the gentleman in the background with his son was blasting Bob Marley’s “War” song! It was incredible and the officers were just coming past. I am not sure my image does it justice but it was a moment that stays with me.
The Luupe: Almost every photographer we’ve spoken with has been greatly impacted by social distancing – all in very unique ways. How has it impacted your work?
Saleh: Well I did do a virtual book launch which was not something I ever imagined. The support has been wonderful. I am pushing an actual book signing to mid-2021 since social distancing is still required.
The Luupe: Has it changed how you think about photographing people on the street?
Saleh: I haven’t ventured out yet to take pictures of people on the street yet. I hope to soon though! It will be interesting with masks. However, my long lens provides security if they want to take off their mask.
The Luupe: This past year has been challenging (to say the least!) on so many levels. What keeps you excited about the creative process?
Saleh: I love to come up with new ideas and challenge myself – I’m now working on delving into video which is very exciting and the ideals are endless.