Alexandra Huddleston first landed in the huge, sparsely populated West African nation of Mali as a 6-year-old. Born in Sierra Leone, Huddleston—the daughter of former US Ambassador to Mali Vicki Huddleston, whom SFR interviewed in January—grew up seeing “all these different cultures…all these mysterious things I didn’t understand.” Photography helped her make sense of the mystery, and a career was born.
In 2007, Huddleston was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to research (and photograph) the long history of Islamic scholarship still thriving in Timbuktu, Mali. Since returning to Santa Fe, Huddleston, 35, has spent years editing her photos and crafting a photographic book about her experience, 333 Saints: A Life of Scholarship in Timbuktu. Political unrest in Mali, however—including the destruction of some of the very heritage Huddleston chronicled—prompted her to reconsider that eternal question: “What story am I telling?”
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SFR: What inspired you to apply for a Fulbright in Mali?
Huddleston: It wasn’t until 2004 [that] I learned about these manuscript libraries—not just the libraries, but the families that the manuscripts have been passed down through for generations. My friends still think I’m crazy, but I thought, ‘I’d love to spend a year in Timbuktu and learn about this.’
When you got there, were you surprised at what you found?
Because I had been traveling to Mali before, I was pretty prepared, which is good, because Timbuktu’s not an easy place to be.
What do you mean, not easy? Culturally?
Everything! There’s one paved street. You have to make sure to filter your water and, if you eat fruits and vegetables, make sure to wash them in iodine. You’d better have a really good medical pack with you—all of that.
So, after the Fulbright…
Mali being Mali, of course I had very limited resources in order to edit any of the photos, and especially the film. So after 10 months, I leave, and I have over 10,000 digital photographs that are only marginally edited and over 300 rolls of film, most of which aren’t even developed. And that’s why I chose to come out here…I came to Santa Fe, I thought I’d be here for a year and put the book together, and everyone would love it, I’d get it published and it’d be great. I had a really naïve vision at that time.
That was nearly five years ago.
[When] I came to Santa Fe, I thought I’d be here for a year and put the book together, and everyone would love it, I’d get it published and it’d be great. I had a really naïve vision at that time.
Then the political situation started changing.
I had a draft; I thought I was all ready to publish when everything happened last year.
How did the political unrest alter your concept of the book?
I had to completely rethink the book…When everything happened, I was like, ‘What does it mean to edit a set of pictures when everything you’ve photographed might not exist again?’ I mean, that is going to happen to all photographs eventually; it just happened to my project faster.
Is there any tension around pursuing scholarship in a place lacking basic necessities like roads and water?
One really essential point that I learned very deeply there is, the more people are rooted and connected in their own culture and in their own tradition, the stronger they become. They’re going to be much more able to manage personally and culturally any outside influences, whether it’s Brazilian soap operas or Islamists.
In your video, you suggest that militant Islamism presents a greater threat to Timbuktu’s legacy than Western influence.
But I think there’s a difference between the creeping influence of modernity, which people willingly choose, and people coming from outside with guns and beating women for not wearing veils.
How does the emphasis on scholarship affect the town’s identity?
Timbuktu’s a really, really multicultural town. Somehow, it developed so that knowledge and scholarship became the core of its identity. It became the glue that linked all the ethnic groups.
And it has 333 saints (hence the book’s title). Why 333?
I’m not sure why there are 333, but in the Sufi-based Islam, the saints are really important. In Timbuktu, the feeling is that all the saints are people of knowledge, and the very act of launching yourself on the path of knowledge and scholarship means you’re walking on a path to sainthood. It doesn’t mean you’ll ever get there, but it means you’re walking in that direction.
What do you hope your book accomplishes?
For someone who is not an expert in photography and not an expert on Africa, I hope they can look at the book and their understanding of what African culture is sometimes and what Islamic culture is will be transformed. Africa isn’t—well, there’s a war in Mali now, but Africa isn’t all about war. In Mali and many other countries in Africa, there’s amazing culture that we can learn a ton from. Islam is an incredibly diverse religion, and in this particular town, it’s been practiced in a way that has in fact united the ethnic groups, that has allowed women to have a part in the economic life of the town, the traditional educational system and the religious life. It’s a lot different from people’s stereotypes. And I think if someone looks at the book, that’s going to be pretty clear.
What’s next for you?
The new big thing I’ve gotten into is walking pilgrimages. In 2009, I walked the Camino de Santiago—500 miles—and in 2010, I walked the Shikoku [in Japan]—100 miles. There’s definitely a link; in both of these projects, I’m looking at very traditional practices and how they exist, transform, endure in our time. And hopefully also what people can learn from them.
Have you done Chimayó?
I haven’t! Every year I mean to and then something comes up. But I do want to go.
Why are you so interested in this relationship between tradition and cultural identity? Is there something in yourself that’s drawing you to this?
Oh, for sure! With the pilgrimages, I become a pilgrim. I am a pilgrim. You don’t walk 500 miles and maintain your objectivity. As a child, I saw all these mysterious things I didn’t understand…and photography became a way for me to being to approach it. But I never lost this sense of awe, of when you go to someplace completely new and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is amazing!’ There’s power in these experiences, and I think you can often find what you’re seeking, though it might be different from what you imagine.