I met Kevin Kunishi a couple of years ago, and was impressed with his book, “Los Restos de la Revolucion,” published in 2012 by Daylight. The book was included on several year-end best book lists, and the project was also exhibited at Rayko in San Francisco last Fall. Kevin was kind enough to chat with me this past Winter about the entire publishing process, start to finish.
Jonathan Blaustein: When we first met in 2011, you were working on a project in Nicaragua. You were also sporting this badass, bushy mustache that made you look like a campesino. Why did you choose to work in Nicaragua?
Kevin Kunishi: I got my undergraduate degree in UCSB, down in Santa Barbara. I was a history major and rented a room from an International Studies professor. We ended up having some great discussions, and it pushed me in a certain direction. I became really interested in US foreign policy in Central and South America.
Fast forward a few years, and I’m in grad school, I made a commitment that I was going to use my MFA experience to delve deeper, to get past the broader rhetoric that I learned in my undergraduate studies. I wanted to meet people who were affected by those policies, and lived through those times.
JB: But it could have been anywhere that was affected by the US manipulations, no?
KK: I suppose, but I chose to focus specifically on Nicaragua. I was drawn to it. There is a lot to dig into there. U.S. involvement goes back a very, very long time.
I also had a strong visual reference. At that time, in college, there was a lot of imagery that specifically deepened my interest in Nicaragua. The photographers who covering the region in the 1970’s and 80’s, Susan Meiselas, Lou Dematteis, and others, who were down there. They did incredible work. It got under my skin.
JB: I think we can assume that most people will know what you’re referring to, but just in case, let’s do a quick recap. For many years, and during the 80’s in particular, the US government played an active role in either overthrowing or undermining governments in Central America, like Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, and others. They used the CIA, but also supplied weapons, and training at places like the School of the Americas.
So you decided you wanted to see for yourself what the impact of these policies was in Nicaragua, years later, and talk to people on the ground.
JB: You saw yourself doing this as an artist, not as a journalist? Or was the nomenclature irrelevant to you?
KK: That was irrelevant to me.
JB: And you self-funded your travels?
KK: Yes, I did.
JB: So which came first, the mustache or the project? Did you actually grow it at home, knowing that you wanted to fit in, looking like a badass? Or did you get down there with a shiny face, and somebody pulled you aside and said, “Listen, hombre, you need to work it?”
KK: (laughing.) I wish my wife could hear you talking about how much you liked the mustache, because she dreaded that thing. But seriously, I didn’t have a lot of money, so I was taking the bus or hitchhiking the entire time. In Nicaragua, the bus system is made up of those old Blue Bird school buses we used to ride as kids.
They’re packed really thick. And some of the places I was going up near the Honduran border were pretty remote, like 8 hours from Managua. When I first went down there, I was all geared up with camping sh-t. Stuff with North Face labels on it, and you stick out like a sore thumb. It wasn’t until I got rid of all that stuff…I picked up some old blue jeans and t-shirts, grew a mustache, and blended in.
JB: I’m sure a lot of photographers have picked up that concept, and then adapted wherever they’re roaming. How long were you working down there before you started visualizing the end product of the project? What were your goals, beyond exploring your own creativity?
KK: You mean, how did I approach the project, going down there?
JB: Well, I want to tie it into the book as soon as we can, but I wanted to give you time to discuss what you were learning down there. Did you always know, before you started shooting, that you wanted to make a book?
KK: Yeah. I always looked at a book as a vehicle to get the work out there, and have people engage with it outside of the gallery context. Images go up on a wall in a gallery for a month, and then they’re gone. A book is something you can have with you for a while, and you can keep going through it, growing and becoming something else. I love that idea.
JB: It was in your head from the beginning?
KK: No, it wasn’t in my head from the beginning. I did not want to go into it thinking, “How is this going to be a book?” I was just focusing on getting the images, first, and seeing where they led me.
JB: Well, once you decided you wanted this to be a book, how did the process evolve? What was the starting point on getting it together?
KK: Production wise? Editing?
JB: Did you start by making a maquette, so you’d have an object to show off, and then pitch it to people? Did you meet with publishers and show them some edited prints? I want to give our readers a sense of how somebody can go through the process and end up with a really well-constructed book like “Los Restos de la Revolucion.”
KK: Got it. Sorry. I’m so congested.
JB: It’s OK. Let’s just go ahead and say it. Ladies and Gentlemen, right now, Kevin has the flu. The nasty flu that everyone’s got, but he has it for the second time in two months.
But rather than cancel the interview, like a pro, he’s gutting it out. So if he’s not perfectly lucid, we have to give him that.
KK: Thanks for explaining. Getting back to the question, I amassed a lot of images. Like an obscene amount. Boxes and boxes of stuff.
JB: Work prints?
KK: Negatives, work prints. I started sequencing. Sequencing and sequencing. Then, I started doing portfolio reviews. I did one here in San Francisco put on by Photo Alliance, a non-profit here in the city. They hold it over at SFAI.
I was lucky enough to meet Taj Forer from Daylight, and we hit it off from the beginning. He really loved the work.
After Photo Alliance, we started spec-ing it out a little. What did we want to do? How many pages did we want?
JB: How did you pitch the project? Were you thinking of narrative? Were you trying to tell a story? How did you want to connect everything together? Or did that not come until after you started working with your publisher?
KK: It was there before the publisher, but what was fantastic about working with Taj and Mike (Michael Itkoff) was they pull from so much in their own backgrounds. It was very collaborative. We met several times. We would basically work through ideas constantly and they would be vetted. We could either discard it, or build upon it.
Especially with the edit. Things started getting crafted down, better and better. Honestly, the image editing process was extremely stressful, because I had emotional ties to a lot of images and individuals within the photos.
JB: Just to step back for a moment, once you met with Taj in the review, what happened next? Was it as simple as you got an email that said, “Hey, we want to run with this?”
KK: Yes. They told me right off that they wanted to do it. So from there, you spec it out, and then the funding issues come into play. You’ve got to start working on that. It was about a year-long process.
JB: Everyone wants to know about funding, and of course, I want to go there. You can be as honest and open about it as you choose to be. How did it work? Did you have to put up or raise significant funds to get the book to market?
KK: Yes. Whether it’s Kickstarter, Indiegogo, working with collectors. In my case I was able to make it happen. It was good that I had the benefit of time, because it took time to find the funds.
JB: How much money did you have to come up with?
KK: I’d rather not talk about that.
JB: OK. That’s understandable.
KK: I will say this, it can be a significant amount and can vary depending on the publisher.
JB: I’m trying to give people a reality check about what it costs to get a book made, but I understand that you don’t feel comfortable discussing the numbers. Money, in general, evokes stress in people across all spectrums.
JB: It just does. I knew once I asked you that, there was a chance you weren’t going to want to answer. But I asked not for my own edification, but to try to educate people.
Once you were confident you could raise whatever was required of you, how do you move from editing into design?
KK: A lot of printing houses will have an in-house design staff. We were lucky enough to work with Ursula Damm, who’s out in Red Hook. She’s a part of a great design firm called Damm Savage. You go to her with a bullet point list of what you want, the ideas that you’re working with, and she would come back with numerous design choices.
JB: What was the vision you presented to her?
KK: It stemmed from a very profound experience I had when I first got to Nicaragua. In the area I was visiting, there is this beautiful, ethereal mist that hangs in the mountains, and drifts down into the cobblestone streets at night. I met this older man on a bus. He pointed out the window and told me that those mists hide many horrible things, but also many wonderful things. “The more time you spend there,” he said, “the more they will be revealed to you.”
That really stuck with me. I shot everything down there in that soft light. I was interested in that idea of things lurking in the haze of the past, that fog of war. Embracing it and applying it. In the vision for the book, and the sequencing, I wanted the book to be almost dream-like, going from image to image.
JB: I hate to be obvious here, but you were conversing with people in Spanish?
KK: Yes. I took Spanish in high school, and lived in San Diego working on the piers for a while. But in those situations down there, it’s sink or swim. Especially out in the campo, I had to pick it up again fast. I got some books, and practiced every morning and night by candle light. I was able to get it going again.
With most of the interviews, I was lucky to piggy back on some of the NGO’s and non-profits down there. They were present with me when I would conduct a lot of the interviews. I would record everything, and if I had an issue with the translation, they would step in and help.
JB: You made use of an existing community?
KK: Absolutely. There are a lot of non-profits and Peace Corps volunteers doing great things in these communities. They were really helpful. I was able to tap into their various community networks to spread the word that I was interested in talking about their experiences during the war.
JB: Let’s jump back to the book. Your vision of the book was related to your vision of the project, which was related to your vision of the place. Mist and fog and dreaminess.
KK: Yes. So the question was, “How do I encompass that in an experience?” The cover of the book has a man with his eyes closed, and I wanted to suggest everything was within his head. Like a dream, a memory, a reflection of that experience, to use the book as a vehicle to create that. That’s where it was coming from. Does that make sense?
JB: Of course. But it also answers another big question I had. How do you choose what goes on the cover?
The book opens with a short poem. Did you write that?
JB: The book opens like that, and then we see all the photographic plates. There’s no mention of Nicaragua explicitly, but the back cover, in black on black, has a picture of the map of the country. That was your way of suggesting place?
KK: Absolutely. I have photobooks that front-load text in some way or another tell you “This is what you’re about to look at,” those are the books that I rarely open again. You know what I mean?
JB: That’s what I’m trying to find out. I want to know what your thought process was. I just reviewed a book from Sweden, and I loved that you got a sense of Scandinavia, and of a bleak sort of factory life, but you don’t know exactly where it is. I think anybody who picks up your book, even if they don’t know it’s Nicaragua, they would get that it’s Central America.
And I’ve been enamored, lately, of books that open with poetry, instead of didactic essays. So many essays are encoded in “intellectual speak.” Which is fine, but in my job, which involves looking at books all the time, I find that often the essays don’t engage.
In the end of the book, you give a lot of additional information. You provide the titles, under a thumbnail image, and then you give background information on the people and places. Things that no viewer would ever know: a tight crawl space is a prison cell, a tulip coming out of the ground is really a grave. A tree that looks like a pretty nature shot was used for torture and hanging people.
You’re giving the viewer all the necessary political information at the end. You wrote all that?
KK: Yes, there are some interview excerpts as well. I don’t really like books that have image, text, image, text. By having all that information at the back, I like the idea that if a viewer went through the first time, they could maybe sniff out what some of these images are about. With the text at the end, it could either validate or eliminate what their assumptions were.
JB: When I look at a book, I believe that if an artist needs me to know something, if there is information that is necessary to unlock the secrets of the book, I expect the artist to give that to me. Books that rely on hearsay, or they expect you to Google something…
JB: Seriously, some of them do. I remember, one of my favorite books that I’ve reviewed was Donald Weber’s “Interrogations.” I looked at it thoroughly, and read every word, and there was no mention that it was a real scenario. I went ahead and assumed that it was staged, as art. Then people in the comment section let me know I was wrong.
Anyway, I liked that you allowed the narrative to be suggestive and mysterious, but then provided a lot of serious context.
I wanted to talk about the writing a bit more as well, because you did a great job with it. Almost all the books I look at involve the use of external writers. Often it’s essays written by intellectuals, curators, or famous people. You hear through the grapevine that there can be pressure on photographers to bring in a writer who can provide additional credibility.
How did it develop in the publishing process that you decided to handle the writing yourself?
KK: I have books and books of journals, from when I was in Nicaragua. I write constantly, when I’m on the road. To be honest, we brainstormed some ideas of having other people contribute, but I wanted the work to stand on it’s own. I wanted my own voice in it.
It was something we went back and forth on, in the beginning. And then, Susan Meiselas told us, “This needs to stand alone.”
JB: How did you get her involved?
KK: I believe Michael started a conversation with her. We sent her some of the work, a maquette with a small sequence of images, and she wrote back a really nice email about it. I agreed with her. It was a gut feeling I had from the beginning, and that’s how it played out.
JB: So you work on a collaborative design process, you raise funds, then you send it off to the printer. I noticed it was printed in China. Did you make a trip over there?
KK: No, I didn’t go to China. They would Fedex proofs back to me. I went down to Rayko, and put them up under the color-balanced lights, and would mark up things to be changed.
JB: How long did that part of the process take?
KK: Maybe two months, from the time I got the proof prints together, and sent them over to China as a reference.
JB: Start to finish. Production wise?
JB: Then the books come back. What happens next? Given that you provided the investment, did you have a contract that stipulated that you’d receive a certain amount of copies?
KK: Yeah, I got a certain amount. One day a palette was delivered. There are like fifty steps from the street down to my apartment, so it was a bit much.
JB: What about marketing and book signings? Was it your intention to try to recoup your investment? I’ve heard that most people don’t ever expect to make a profit. It’s more a promotional vehicle for their careers. What was your strategy with Daylight to get the books into people’s hands?
KK: Well it might be important to look at it for the long haul, if you sell all your books over the next decade you will be well on your way to making your money back. Couple that with press attention/commissions/print sales etc and you have the formula to move your career forward. What’s so great about Daylight is that they have a fantastic distribution network, with D.A.P., so that really helped get it out there. With regards to making money? No way. Making money on photobooks? (laughing.)
JB: That’s the word on the street.
JB: Hopefully, you can understand, that’s why I’m asking these questions. We’re trying to use your experience to give people an inside look into the process.
Your book was successful. It was listed on several year-end-best book lists. People like the book, so it’s a great opportunity for our readers to get a sense of how it really works. They’ll understand what is required, if they’re going to embark on the publishing process.
KK: I think it’s also important to define what “success” means.
JB: Sure. What was your vision of success?
KK: For this body of work, I’d have to answer that on two fronts. First, it involves creating a discussion around the work. And I’ve been really happy with how that’s played out. Second, it’s generated print sales, so that I can get money back to people who are in the book.
JB: You’d mentioned to me previously that it was your intention to give your share of print sales to the subjects of the photos? Is that right?
KK: Yes, I’m sending a significant cut of my proceeds down to Nicaragua. To put this in perspective, in some areas in the campo, $200 is an annual salary. The sale of a print can really make a difference in some bad situations that are going on down there. You know what I mean?
JB: Sure. It’s impressive.
KK: It goes into micro-finance projects, alleviates some of the debt load of these fertilizer loans that people are inundated with, I can go on and on.
JB: You’re happy with the way everything turned out?
KK: For the most part.
JB: What would you do differently if you could do it over again?
KK: I don’t know if there’s anything I’d do differently, specifically. I always think I can do better. I don’t know about you, but I’m never satisfied.