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Interview: Alexandra Huddleston on East or West and Self-Publishing

Interview Alexandra Huddleston on East or West and Self-Publishing photo-eye's Melanie McWhorter talks to Alexandra Huddleston about her newest self-published book East or West and the process and challenges of self-publishing.

East or West: A Walking Journal Along Shikoku’s 88 Temple Pilgrimage
by Alexandra Huddleston. Kyoudai Press,  2014.
Alexandra Huddleston recently released her third self-published book titled East or West: A Walking Journal Along Shikoku’s 88 Temple Pilgrimage. This paper-wrapped book features a carefully edited selection of her personal journal entries and photographs from an 800-mile pilgrimage across Japan. This book follows 333 Saints: A Life of Scholarship in Timbuktu, a project documenting the ancient tradition of Islamic scholarship in Africa, and a collaborative piece Lost Things with images by the photographer and poems by her brother Robert Huddleston. In this interview, we focus on Huddleston’s three successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaigns that financed the publications, her decision to make East or West a modest publication and the editing and design choices that Huddleston faced with 333 Saints after the conflict in Mali lead to the destruction of some of the same scholarly texts that she photographed.—Melanie McWhorter

East or West: A Walking Journal Along Shikoku’s 88 Temple Pilgrimage by Alexandra Huddleston. Kyoudai Press,  2014.

Melanie McWhorter:     I am here with Alexandra Huddleston and we are discussing her new book titled East or West about the religious pilgrimage that she went on a few years ago in Japan. The book itself is quite modest and contains journal entries from your journey as well as photos that you took along the way. Why did you choose this format — selecting just a few passages and images — as opposed to a much larger publication that might chronicle the entire journey?

Alexandra Huddleston:     For this book, the edit came together in a way that was much different from my past projects. The edit veered away from the documentary, from being a comprehensive documentation of what I saw and where I went. Instead, it became this very, very tight edit: four stanzas of photographs that follow each other sequentially.

The idea was to put together a book that was more like a poem than a documentation. There are long-form poems, of course, and very wonderful ones, like The Wasteland, but there's a tradition in poetry of trying to express things very concisely and very efficiently. The concision and the efficiency should allow the meaning of things to overlap. By going with a shorter edit, the idea is to give people more time to reflect on what they are seeing, what is actually going on in the photographs and how the photographs are sequenced one after another.

With long sequences of photographs, people get tired. There's an exhaustion of looking, and I think sometimes the reader spends less effort trying to make the connections and trying to figure out what's actually going on in the book.

East or West: A Walking Journal Along Shikoku’s 88 Temple Pilgrimage by Alexandra Huddleston. Kyoudai Press,  2014.

MM:     When I was reading the text, I realized there were probably a number of ways that you can approach this journey, but it seems like you chose to focus on a more spiritual element. You do talk about the physical ordeal of going through the actual journey, but instead of making this a heavy book that becomes about the weight of the journey, it's about the lightness. I really like that about this book. 

AH:     Thank you! I think it's a book that really lives well in people's hands. I try to make this the case with all of my books and that is why I tend to make smaller books. When I see people looking through East or West, I like how they do it: they flip through it and they don't stop, then they flip back, and then they go back and forth. That's how I want people to interact with the book. If all they did was flip through it once, then my efforts would have been in vain.

MM:     Your book made me want to try something that challenged me physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. All this in a very, very small volume.

AH:     I talked with other pilgrims about this book and about my aim for it, which was to try and express what you go through as a pilgrim rather than show what you see as a pilgrim. I suspect some other pilgrims would say that I've been partially successful and some would say, "No, it's beyond photography. No one can express that." But in as much as I could, that's what I wanted to do.

333 Saints: The Life and Scholarship in Timbuktu
by Alexandra Huddleston. Kyoudai Press,  2013.
MM:     Let's talk about your previous book, 333 Saints: The Life and Scholarship in Timbuktu. You came into the photo-eye bookstore a few times and showed us a mock-up of how you initially envisioned this book, but you approached the final production from an academic perspective with captions that described what the readers are seeing. Why did you choose to present the work this way rather than as an art object? 

AH:     Right, as you say, the first edits included a lot more pictures, daily life pictures, and had the flow and design of an art book. What happened was 2012. When Timbuktu was invaded by the Islamist militant groups at that time, it forced me to rethink what I wanted the book to be.

All pictures become historical documents. Any picture of a person does so the moment that they die or they age, and the same is true with landscapes because they change as well. But for my pictures, that change happened really fast. Suddenly, I'm faced with photographs of things that don't exist anymore or might not exist again for many years. That completely changed for me how I viewed the importance of a photograph.

Before the invasion I was evaluating my pictures in a much more classic, artistic, aesthetic kind of way, but afterwards, the questions became: Who's in this picture? What are they doing now? What does this show about this culture that's under threat? The artistic evaluation of a photograph dropped compared to the historical importance.

333 Saints: The Life and Scholarship in Timbuktby Alexandra Huddleston. Kyoudai Press,  2013.

MM:     Were some of the texts destroyed during the invasion?

AH:     Fortunately, most of the manuscripts were saved through an amazing, clandestine effort that went on during the occupation. It was all organized by people from Timbuktu. They would put the manuscripts in these metal boxes secretly at night, and then they transported them underneath other cargo in trucks or by boat. They transported hundreds of thousands of manuscripts down to Bamako. When the militants left Timbuktu they did burn quite a number of manuscripts, but it was in the number of a couple of thousand that were destroyed rather than what it could have been. By the time they left, most of the manuscripts were in hiding.

Once the militants started to destroy the shrines in the city, the people of Timbuktu knew the manuscripts were in danger. If the militants were against the Sufi-based Islam in Timbuktu enough to destroy the graves of their ancestors and saints, then they reasoned that they wouldn't hesitate to destroy the manuscripts, even though many are holy Muslim texts.

East or West: A Walking Journal Along Shikoku’s 88 Temple Pilgrimage by Alexandra Huddleston. Kyoudai Press,  2014.

MM:     You funded all three of your publications from successful Kickstarter campaigns. What do you think made each Kickstarter successful?

AH:     Part of me, at this point, says, "Ah, I was just lucky." Practically, being a good planner and having a good and realistic budget is really important. I took a basic finance class before I did any of these Kickstarters—

MM:     That was for artists?

AH:     Yeah, a basic finance class that was for artists. It covered a lot of the skills that I was missing, especially in things like creating budgets. You really want to be able to set down, "These are my anticipated costs," realistically — which, of course, also involves talking to people who have already published. I talked to three or four other photographers who had already self-published, and I got actual quotes from the printer before launching the Kickstarter.

You want to have things as organized and well planned as you can before you do your Kickstarter. That means having a mockup that's going to be very close to what the final book is going to be--or at least very close in terms of things like page count, size, and paper quality, because these are going to big factors in determining your final printing cost. To do a Kickstarter for a book before you know how many pages it's going to be or what size you want the book to be is not a great idea because you're not going to get an accurate quote from your printer, and that accurate quote is essential to knowing how much money you need.

I think it was also good that my first Kickstarter was really small. It was for an artists’ book titled Lost Things that I published with my brother. The amount of money we aimed to raise was modest—

East or West: A Walking Journal Along Shikoku’s 88 Temple Pilgrimage by Alexandra Huddleston. Kyoudai Press,  2014.

MM:     How much was it?

AH:     It was $2500, and we wanted to hand-make fifty books. Everything was under my control. I made the actual books myself. I didn't have to outsource anything, and the amount of money we wanted to raise was pretty reasonable. There were two of us spreading the word about the Kickstarter as well. For that project, 100% of the people who contributed were friends and family. But, it let me understand the process: how I wanted to put together a Kickstarter page, what sort of video I wanted to make, what kind of text I needed to write, and what kind of promotion I needed. But, I do have to say that jumping from raising $2500 to $15,000 for the next campaign was a huge leap, and I don't think that would have worked unless I'd been lucky.

I'd heard what people said: that it's a full-time job while you're doing it, that it's an emotional rollercoaster. I'd heard all of that, but until you're in it, especially for a big one, I don't think you fully understand what crowd-funding is all about. With the second Kickstarter, I'd say about a third of the people who contributed were strangers, and what really helped me was the fact that Timbuktu was in the news all the time then. I also had a good network of people who had worked in Mali, traveled to Mali or worked in Africa. Those people understood the importance of the work and they were very willing to share the news with their networks. I think that this network heavily contributed to the success of the campaign.

But, for the duration of that second Kickstarter I was definitely working about ten hours a day, at least. Frankly, after the first two days of the campaign I realized, "Oh my goodness. This is really iffy. I have to do a lot more than I ever thought I'd have to do to make this happen." Fortunately, with the help of many other people, it worked out.