Money & Me: Photographer turns talent into profit

Tasneem Alsultan says she often spends her weekends editing pictures purely for the joy of it

Tasneem Al Sultan says most of the money she makes with her photography goes back into her business. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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Tasneem Alsultan is a portrait photographer and English lecturer who divides her time between her business, Tasneem Photography, in Dubai and her part-time job teaching English to medical students in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi-American, who moved to the UAE six months ago, decided to become a photographer after being unimpressed by portraits taken of her two young daughters.

Describe your financial journey so far.

I was born in the United States and moved to Manchester, in the UK, when I was six and lived there until I was 15. My parents are both professors at universities in Saudi, so they were studying when I was growing up and we moved around a lot. Because my parents were students, I had a very different lifestyle to my relations who lived in elaborate villas in Saudi while we lived in flats in the UK. But it taught my siblings and I how to appreciate money and not spend it. I never really had a "job", at least not until I started my business in 2009, which allowed me to appreciate money a lot more. Before then, I had a terrible background in finance. As soon as money hit my pockets, it was gone.

Are you a spender or a saver?

I am the biggest spender in my family. However, I do know how to save. Most of my money goes right back into my business. I invest in photography equipment and marketing tools, such as my blog and website, and anything else that I feel will grow my business to success.

What is your philosophy towards money?

Enjoy it while it lasts!

What has been your most valuable financial lesson?

When I first started my business, I did not charge for the photography session, only the pictures the clients bought. But I'd have clients who'd come for the two-hour session and then only spend Dh200 on prints and I felt they hadn't appreciated the time I had put into their portraits. So I raised the price to Dh500 for the session and now my clients spend an average of Dh2,000 and I don't have to stress about how much they spend on the prints. My business is about art and I am selling my artistic talent. I am my product and in my opinion, time is money and the resources that are used in my business are expensive.

Why did you decide to set up your own business?

I used to spend a lot of money on portraits of my daughters, who are six and four. It was so expensive and the photos were often not to my liking. After expressing my disappointment to my family, my mother encouraged me to use my photography skills and start my own business. I've been interested in photography from a young age - I had my first camera at the age of 12 - so I took a six-month course in the US in 2007. My mother also gave me the initial start-up money for my business, which I set up in Bahrain, where I lived at the time, before relocating it here this year.

What do you like to invest in?

I love to invest in my business, in my children's education and in shoes. I can't help it; I just love fuchsia-pink shoes and I have 15 pairs of heels, flats, sandals and trainers that are all exactly the same tone of pink.

Have you experienced any financial difficulties along the way?

To be honest, I haven't had any financial difficulties so far. I have, however, had some difficulty separating my family quality time from my work. I get overexcited editing pictures and often ended up doing it on weekends purely out of pleasure because I love my work, but I was not appreciating my family time. Then, five months ago, my husband had a stroke at the age of 32. He was fit and healthy and thankfully is going to make a recovery. I tell him we were lucky because we were both so busy and didn't take a moment to stop and take a breath. In a way we were so busy, we weren't enjoying our life together. He is now back at work two days a week and I have learnt to set a time limit on my work. I still fly back and forth between my teaching in Saudi and my photography in Dubai, but we are stronger as a family and we've learnt to appreciate life more. You could almost say I feel empowered by what's happened.

Is money important to you?

Of course! How can I afford to buy all those shoes? But seriously, building financial security for my family and I is extremely important in today's world. None of us are exempt from losing our wealth at any given moment.

What financial advice would you give your children?

I want them to be mature about where money comes from. Most children in the Middle East spend money in an instant because their parents have it, but it's not their money to spend. They haven't appreciated how much their parents have worked for that money, so I want my children to appreciate how hard we have worked to provide for them.

* Alice Haine