Setting off on a walking pilgrimage — a form of religious devotion common to many ancient faiths, and still practiced today — is a way to bring the spiritual and the everyday together. Photographer Alexandra Huddleston explores this dichotomy in her new book of art photographs, East or West: A Walking Journey Along Shikoku’s 88 Temple Pilgrimage. The book contains images from the famous Japanese pilgrims’ route, an 800-mile circumnavigation of the island of Shikoku.
Now based in the American Southwest, Huddleston lived around the world as a child before returning to the U.S. and graduating from Stanford, then Columbia Journalism School. Her last book, published in 2013, looked at the longstanding Islamic scholarly tradition of Timbuktu, in Mali. Huddleston spoke with Max Luxe about her art, her influences, and her travels.
– How did you become interested in pilgrimages as a subject?
In his best-selling book, Immortelle randonnée : Compostelle malgré moi, Jean-Christophe Rufin describes the urge to go on a pilgrimage as a viral illness that often has a long and invisible incubation period before the full range of symptoms erupt. There is some truth in this description!
I caught the pilgrimage virus in 1996 when I visited the Pyrenees as a tourist and innocently hiked some mountain trails that I learned were part of the Camino de Santiago. When I realized that I could continue for 500 miles on the same trail before eventually reaching Santiago de Compostela, I was very tempted to do just that. Instead, I continued with my vacation and went on to college. But an unspoken pact was made between myself and the trail that day: that I would return to walk that route, and I eventually did so in 2009.
My experience walking the Camino in Spain made me realize just how rich pilgrimage is as a subject: photographically, historically, culturally…
– What’s special about Japan, Shikoku, and this pilgrimage in particular?
One of the reasons I decided to walk the Shikoku pilgrimage in Japan after I had already walked the Camino was precisely to see what was the same and what changed in a long walking pilgrimage when you changed the country, religion, and culture (but kept the walking).
In the Japanese tradition spiritual journeys are circular. This is true whether the itinerary is very individual like Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North or very structured like the Shikoku pilgrimage. The Shikoku pilgrimage traces the circumference of the island of Shikoku and you end where you began. There is no terminus–spiritual or physical–that dominates the journey. This removal of a final goal tends to allow pilgrims to focus more on the present and the actual.
Of course, there is also the delicious seafood of Shikoku, the beauty of walking next to the coast for most of the journey, and the colorful seasonal festivals of rural Japan.
– When you take narrative photos like the ones in “East or West,” what do you look for? What else can you tell us about your practice as a photographer and photojournalist?
When I’m photographing a project I will have an ever-growing list of themes in mind, and as I photograph I look for moments that evokes these ideas. In the case of East or West the theme that dominated my mind was quite abstract. I wanted to somehow describe the bipolar daily experience of pilgrimage that throws the pilgrim between moments of mundane physical worries and moments of sublime exaltation. In the end, no one photograph could capture this idea. Only the book as a whole could do the work: by combining a very carefully edited sequence of images and text.
As my work has evolved in the last few years–and has, in fact, moved away from traditional photojournalism–my aim has become more to show the inner truth and experience of a situation, rather than just the outer appearance. I definitely think that my experience as a pilgrim myself (and not just as someone who photographs pilgrimages) played a big part in this transformation.
Now, my approach is closer to that of an ethnographer than that of a journalist.
– Your last major project was a look at Islamic scholarly culture in Timbuktu (333 Saints). How are these books related? What do they tell us about your interests?
In both the Timbuktu work and the pilgrimage work I am looking at ancient, mystical, religious cultures and how their traditions have survived and evolved in the 21st century. I am interested in religion in general, but I’m particularly interested in how reconnecting with traditional cultures might be able to renew and re-enchant a modern world that is too often arid, one-dimensional, and flattened by the monopoly of the material over our consciousness.
That said, I hope to photograph these subjects without falling into the common traps of naiveté, delusion, or hypocrisy!
– You’ve lived all over the world. Where would you move tomorrow if you had the chance?
Well, although I have travelled quite a bit, much of it has been in Europe and Africa. Other than Japan and Sri Lanka, I have not worked all that much in Asia, and I would like to do so! That said, I have this habit of returning again and again to places that I’ve already been. So, if I could move tomorrow, it might just be to go back to Japan!
– What’s your next project?
Last summer (2014) I walked a third pilgrimage: 500 miles along the Camino de Santiago again, but this time I walked one of the main French trails called the Via Podiensis. So, the first step is to start getting these new photographs in order.
The next project is in the works, but it’s still a secret…