Industry Insights: Alexandra Leese on self-publishing

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In collaboration with Direct Digital – the leading international photographic equipment rental service – 1854 Media and British Journal of Photography presents Industry Insights, a series delving into the ins and outs of working in the photography industry.

The author of Me + Mine discusses her origins in zines, graduating to photobooks and the importance of clinging onto print

In late 2020, Chinese-English photographer Alexandra Leese – who built her career on shooting fashion editorials for the likes of Vogue, i-D and GQ Style – self-published Me + Mine. A simple but achingly beautiful ode to the female form, the minimalist photobook presents 44 portraits of women all over the world, posing nude over Zoom during the global coronavirus lockdown of April last year. “It’s definitely a timely piece,” Leese muses. “To do a whole book remotely is so 2020.”

Me + Mine is Leese’s third self-published work, the first two being closer to zines. Boys of Hong Kong (2018) explored the diversity of masculinity among Hong Kong youth culture in a bid to challenge damaging conceptions about the homogeneity of Asian men. A year later, Yumi and the Moon saw Leese construct a mystical vision of femininity through a modern retelling of a centuries-old Japanese folktale, The Tale of Princess Kaguya. “It’s quite addictive once you get started,” she laughs. “Having something physical and tangible is just so meaningful in a time when our entire existence is online; when everything feels like a fleeting moment on Instagram. Especially as artists.”

Needless to say, Leese is part of a wider boom in the self-publishing of photobooks that has been building steadily for some years. Cheap digital printing technology has collided with the rise of social media, and photographers are now able to source suppliers, collaborators and audiences for their work with relative ease. Since it’s rarely a way to make fast money, experts in the field will stress it’s vital to know why you’re making a photobook, who you’re making it for, and carefully tailor your decisions – from content and form to materials and print runs – to these ends. But, as Leese testifies, there can be noteworthy benefits if the recipe is right. 

Me + Mine © Alexandra Leese.

 “Having something physical and tangible is just so meaningful in a time when our entire existence is online; when everything feels like a fleeting moment on Instagram. Especially as artists”

Boys of Hong Kong © Alexandra Leese.
Yumi and the Moon © Alexandra Leese.

“It informs my fashion work, because it helps me understand myself; who I am, what I stand for, and what I want to shoot,” she says. “And that’s when you start to get hired for you, and what you do, as opposed to just being hired because someone needs a photographer to do a job.” Leese’s self-published works have served as catalysts for many clients to commission her to create similar work. “Like with Yumi and the Moon,” she explains, “it was very much about the body, and I got a lot of lingerie and beauty assignments. It really does tie in.” It was a bonus, in the end, that Boys of Hong Kong and Yumi and the Moon sold out and made a profit (Me + Mine – still on sale – is a non-profit title, with proceeds split between Black Trans Femmes in the Arts, Trans Law Centre and the Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre). 

While the initial investment can be costly, as Leese notes, it’s entirely dependent on the design, production materials and how many you print; in this sense, it is arguably safer to start with a zine, as she did, and work up to a book. “People made zines super cheaply back in the day, and those had a huge impact,” Leese says. “So you can work within a budget.”

The photographer freely admits that she had “no idea” what she was doing when she set out to publish Boys of Hong Kong back in 2018. The photobook process is gradually becoming de-mystified (particularly by Self Publish Be Happy, who run a wealth of educational workshops, alongside resources from the likes of British Journal of Photography and Photo District News). But for Leese, the main solution was enlisting more experienced creatives. “I knew I needed some kind of designer or art director to guide me through,” she says. “Someone who loved the project, wanted to help it get made, and had done it before.” Lauren Faye of CLO Studio came on board as art director of Boys of Hong Kong, and Bruce Usher as designer. Fast forward, and Leese’s most recent publication, Me + Mine, has been a collaboration with Dazed designer Eva Nazarova. 

“When I start coming to the end of shooting a project, I start to research and ask around my contacts for a designer who could be right for it,” Leese explains. “Then once they’re on board, everything is a collaboration, from the layout, to the paper that we use, everything.” The photographer will always have an idea in her mind of how she sees the finished book looking before she approaches her collaborators, but hopes to find people who can bring something extra to the table. “With Me + Mine, I knew I wanted to work with a woman,” she says. “Someone younger, someone who I could get creative with. Jamie Reid [art director of Dazed] said I should hit up Eva, and we really got on. She loved the project. It was an instant ‘yes’.”

Me + Mine © Alexandra Leese.
Boys of Hong Kong © Alexandra Leese.
Yumi and the Moon © Alexandra Leese.

All three of Leese’s titles have been stocked and distributed by Antenne Books, whose list also includes publications by Ed Templeton, Kim Gordon, Harmony Korine and Ryan McGinley. Leese initially approached the distributor by pitching Boys of Hong Kong and sending them a copy; after the zine proved a sell-out success, the relationship continued naturally. In terms of promotion, Leese has been lucky in that, as an established fashion photographer, she already had a bank of press contacts. But she’s also forged relationships with magazines who had never previously heard of her to get the word out. “That’s always daunting,” she says. “But you have to just trust in your project, and hope that someone will pick it up. And if they don’t, they don’t. There has to be a level of acceptance that not everyone’s going to like what you do.” 

Me + Mine has proved particularly difficult to market on social media due to the nature of the images. Instagram has garnered criticism in recent years for an anti-nudity policy that appears to disproportionately affect bodies that aren’t thin and/or white. When Leese began circulating images from the project, she maintains her account was shadow-banned (where content is allegedly suppressed by Instagram, so that users are unable to see it on their feeds or find it via the search bar — though this is something the app doesn’t admit to doing). “When something like that happens, you realise how unhealthily dependent you are on these platforms to promote your work,” she says. “Even though these books are ways to remove yourself from that, your platform to promote them is your Instagram.”

With hype fuelled by features in Vogue Italia, The Face, AnOther and more, there is firm hope that Me + Mine will sell out like Leese’s previous titles, with or without Instagram’s help. As for what’s next for the photographer, her trajectory so far has given her confidence to consider pitching to a traditional publisher next time — something that felt entirely “out of reach” in the beginning. “But I really hope self-publishing carries on thriving,” she says, resolutely. “I hope it continues as this accessible art form. And I hope we always keep one foot in the physical world.”

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Yumi and the Moon © Alexandra Leese.
Boys of Hong Kong © Alexandra Leese.
Flossie Skelton

Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.