Alys Tomlinson, the 2018 Professional Photographer of the Year with her series 'Ex-Voto', has launched a crowdfunding campaign to publish a book about her five-year journey exploring pilgrimage sites in Europe.
With a few days left until the campaign closes on October 31, backers can get a signed copy of the book from a limited edition of 750, designed by renowned book designer Stu Smith and published by GOST Books in Spring 2019.
We caught up with Alys to chat about her crowdfunding campaign and her upcoming book.
Your 'Ex-Voto' project will be published as a book by GOST in Spring 2019. How did the idea of a photo book come about?
I don’t think it is always a good idea to start a project with a book in mind because I don’t think that all photography projects work as books. But with this particular work, as it developed I began thinking that it would be a really lovely final form for the project. I could have kept working on this project for the rest of my life, but I feel that a book brings a project closure. It is also very tangible and has a longevity that an exhibition doesn’t have. So, I am hoping that it will be a very beautiful book that people will keep and refer back to over time.
You launched a Kickstarter campaign with a pledge for a £15,000 goal. WIth 19 days to go, how is it going?
It’s going very well but the publishing industry has changed a lot in the last few years. Most photography book publishers aren’t willing to take any risks, which means that it’s common practice now for photographers to have to raise funds themselves for the printing costs, production and distribution. There are several ‘rewards’ available in my Kickstarter campaign but essentially I’m asking people to purchase the book in advance, with an opportunity to also get limited edition prints.
How are you using social media to promote it?
I’m not amazing on social media but it is really important to provide Kickstarter updates and I’m using my Instagram and Twitter accounts to get the word out there. I have quite a lot of connections within the photography industry, but I’ve also been trying to connect outside of this, for instance with the religious press, which is not an industry I know well. I’m hoping to find new audiences for the book.
The book has been designed by Stu Smith, a renowned book designer with over 30 years experience and renowned for his specialisation in typography and award-winning photo books. How do you feel about this?
I’ve always been a big fan of Stu’s work because I think he’s very sensitive to the photographer’s vision and his design gives images space to breathe. Some of the books he produces are quite classic, but he uses innovative approaches to typography and design. I’ve had a few meetings with him now, we’re developing the visual identity of the book, the theme and the tone of it. From my first meeting, I felt that he really got the work, which of course was really important for me, and I felt he was the right person for this project.
Can you tell our audience some insights of the publication?
There will be some touches in the design that refer to themes of religious devotion and pilgrimage. It’s still being finalised and the use of images will be very clean, but for instance the title page is a visual nod to marble tableaus found on the walls of European churches.
Essays included in the book are by Sean O'Hagan (The Guardian) and Professor John Eade (University of Roehampton). Why them?
In the case of Sean, he saw one of the portraits from Ex-Voto in the Taylor Wessing Prize at the NPG last year and featured it on his Instagram. I was aware of his work as he writes so well about photography and art and I’m a regular Guardian reader. He is incredibly knowledgeable but his writing is also very accessible, which is important to me as I didn’t want anything too wordy or pretentious. He also went on a trip to Lourdes as an Irish Catholic schoolboy, so when he first saw work it resonated with him on a personal level.
Professor John Eade is an expert on pilgrimage and we met when I did my MA in Anthropology at SOAS. He was one of the guest speakers and I also attended a lecture that he gave about pilgrimage at the Wellcome Collection several years ago, when my project was still just an idea.
With 'Ex-Voto' you won the Sony World Photographer of the Year in April 2018. How has it helped your career?
I was very lucky to win the Sony as it gave me such a wide platform for my work. Had I not won, I would still be entering the series into certain competitions, particularly those with judging panels that I admire. It’s important not to be disappointed if you don’t win competitions that you enter. I do believe if you have strong work, it will get recognised by someone at some point, but you have to keep persevering, getting in touch with magazines attending portfolio reviews, meeting editors and curators, etc. You have to be persistent.
There was a lot of initial press just after I won, which was really exciting. But then it was difficult to judge what the long-term impact would be. It definitely accelerated the making of the book and it made it much easier to get a publisher interested in the work as a lot of people were familiar with the project. Even if they’d only seen one or two images, they felt a kind of connection to it, which was very helpful. I’ve definitely had more opportunities as a result of exposure from the Sony World Photography Awards.
The project has since been exhibited in London, Berlin and Milan. What is next?
I’m going to have some work at Paris Photo next month and then there will be three exhibitions next Spring in the United Kingdom. One is at Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, which should be interesting as it’s a different venue for me to show the work. It will be a type of pilgrims’ trail around the cathedral. The second one is in London and the third in a public gallery in the north of England.
You now have a gallery representation with HackelBury Fine Art. Did they approach you? Did you have gallery representation before?
They had seen an image from the Sony World Photography Awards and they were interested in finding out more. I had an initial meeting with them in London and then it went from there. I think the timing was good as they were looking for new artists and new work. I didn’t have gallery representation before and it was always something that I hoped might happen. They are a very established gallery with a great reputation, so I was delighted when they got in touch.
What struggles or challenges did you find along the way?
The Sony World Photography Awards and other awards of the last few months are really the result of years of hard work, perseverance and commitment. It’s not something that has suddenly happened overnight. I never make work with awards in mind, but I’m driven by my passion for visual storytelling. There will always be difficulties and disappointments, but I do think that in the end, strong work and strong ideas will get noticed. With online and multimedia platforms, there are a lot of opportunities to get your photography work out there.
Your passion is this kind of photography, is this your day to day or do you have to do more commercial jobs?
I do still have to earn money! Much as I’d love to concentrate solely on my own projects, that’s not possible. I do some teaching at Ravensbourne University in London and I also have clients in editorial, arts and design agencies. As a photographer, you have to be realistic: you still need to make money and very few photographers can survive from selling fine art prints alone. It’s all about trying to get a balance and making sure that the work you’re making is fulfilling creatively.
You are just back from a recent trip, making new work in Belarus for the Sony Grant. How was the experience?
It was a fascinating experience. I stayed in a convent in Belarus with the main nun (Sr. Vera) portrayed in my ‘Ex-Voto' series. I was there for a week and I made a short film and took still images. It was probably one of the most interesting weeks of my life. It’s hard to describe, but I got a real insight into the life of someone who has completely dedicated themselves to their faith.