Cristina De Middel, born in Spain, earned her MFA at the University of Valencia and received her MA in Photography from the University of Oklahoma, but her real training came as a photojournalist. Her first book, The Afronauts (Self-published, 2012), has received critical acclaim and was named by many as one of the “Best Photobooks of 2012.” De Middel is currently based in London, UK.

Pat Padua: Who are your influences as a photographer? As a book maker?

Cristina De Middel: When I am asked this question, I always wonder if the influence meant is in my work or in my life. If it is in my work, I have no clue. I used to love Diana Arbus and Duane Michals when I was studying but I do not think I am technically or aesthetically influenced by them. I find many photographers work inspiring but my influences come from what I read, what I watch in the cinema or what I listen in the radio. The information I get everyday is what really conditions my work both conceptually and aesthetically.

As a book maker there is definitely one person that influenced me because he is my friend and he gave me very good advice: Ricardo Cases, author of Paloma al Aire.

PP: I loved Paloma al Aire. What kind of advice did Ricardo give you?

CM: Ricardo gave me very good advice on the importance of design and print control. Once the book was done he shared with me his address list with the people that should absolutely see the book, like bloggers, curators and other photographers.

PP: You’ve said that you learned more working as a photojournalist than from formal academic training. Is your personal work different because of your work as a photojournalist?

CM: Yes, definitely. I think all I have to say in photography is just a reaction to my days as a photojournalist and in some ways, revenge. I was very disappointed with certain parts of this job and I have always been very idealistic, so I started to give my own version of reality and of the business (because it is mainly that, let’s not forget that detail) on personal blogs at the beginning, and on more elaborate projects later.

One of the aspects of the Afronauts story that excited me the most was that I was going to create new images of Africa to tell a positive story coming from that continent. It is very simple… just Google “Africa news” and look at the images. I react against that, and it’s been always my starting point.

from the series The Afronauts
© Cristina De Middel

from the series The Afronauts
© Cristina De Middel

PP: How did you first learn of the Zambian space program?

CM: I was researching strange psychological experiments in the US in the ’50s. I was, and still am, very interested in the first studies of human behavior adapted to war strategy. Surfing the web looking for these weird experiments I found a page with the “10 Strangest Experiments in History.” The first one on the list was the Zambian space program.

PP: I love the crossroads of technology that your book proposes – a space age ambition with folk art sensibilities. Do you think there’s a danger that the Zambians’ project will be considered a joke?

CM: Well, the images are not offensive by themselves in any way. I am not making fun of the project or the idea, and I was very aware of the risk I was taking and how careful I had to be. Yet, it is true that people tend to laugh by only reading the headline “African Space Program,” which is actually revealing prejudices that we might not even be aware of. I say the same every time that I am asked about this… if it was a German space program, you wouldn’t be laughing, right?

One of my intentions with The Afronauts was to raise awareness of how we consume the image of Africa that is given in the media, and how a whole continent has been stigmatized. This uncomfortable reaction and prejudice belongs to the viewer as it is not literally included in the images.

from the series The Afronauts
© Cristina De Middel

PP: If viewers bring their own prejudices to The Afronauts, do you feel this is a problem with how viewers react to photojournalism as well?

CM: I think the audience now is just assimilating and metabolizing photojournalistic language in a different way. We all seem to decipher photographic images just as we decipher letters to understand words and sentences. Photography is much more a code than a proper message.

In that sense, we might be limiting ourselves to assuming only the simple and straightforward ideas or concepts that are behind each image. That is sadly evident with photojournalism and advertising. Images in newspapers seem to work as headlines, simple and direct, and they lose a lot of potential by contributing to a simplistic version of reality.

Documentary photography should enrich our visual culture and stimulate or assumption of reality and never reduce or castrate it. I am far more interested in images that open at least an internal debate about veracity, than in images that state a certain reality and turn into a product we consume.

The Afronauts (Self-published, 2012)
© Cristina De Middel

PP: The presentation of this work goes far beyond the typical photo book. Did you have the book in mind when you shot the work, or did the format come to you later?

CM: When I started shooting I didn’t know what this story would become. I needed to propose a new exhibition for my gallery in Spain and found the Afronauts story, so at the beginning my intention was just to take pictures and hang them on a wall. Yet after a few months of research I realized that the story had to include many peripheral documents and elements to be told properly and to enable the fact and fiction game that I wanted to play. So at some point it was clear that I needed a book, but I didn’t how to make it happen.

I think every story has its ideal platform to be told. For this particular one, the book is by far the best way of understanding all the layers of it, but that doesn’t mean that I am going to stick to the book forever… I might come up with another project that needs fortune cookies to be understood. ;-)

PP: The photo book market has gone nuts, and prices for The Afronauts are outrageous. How do you feel about the collector madness?

CM: I wish I could answer your question firmly, but the truth is that I still do not know how I feel about all this. On one hand I would never spend that money on a book, not even on the last copy available in the world of The Afronauts. I just cannot understand that collectors’ mentality because I don’t belong to that world. On the other hand I can’t help feeling flattered by the whole idea. It is weird, crazy, uncomfortable, scary. At this moment I cannot afford my own book, which is kind of freaky.

The Afronauts (Self-published, 2012)
© Cristina De Middel

The Afronauts (Self-published, 2012)
© Cristina De Middel

PP: Are there any plans for a second edition of The Afronauts? If not, do you think the video is the next best way for reader to experience the material?

CM: No, there will be no second edition of The Afronauts in the near future. I really need to move on to something else as I had to stop other ongoing projects to attend to this “phenomenon” and I just can’t wait anymore to start working again on my stuff.

But I am preparing an Afronauts app to make it more accessible. It will be a version of the book adapted to this new platform, but it doesn’t pretend to be a literal translation, just an adaptation that takes advantage of all the multimedia possibilities.

I think after the book, the best way to show this story and to experience it is the exhibition as all the documents and the images are included and you have no time imposition. You can enjoy it and consume it at your own rhythm, just like the book.

PP: The Afronauts video works differently from either the individual images or the book. Do you plan to make more films?

CM: Yes, of course. I am really happy with the video and find a lot of possibilities with storytelling but there are limits. I am not interested in making movies, I just want to use moving image to support a story that is mainly told with photographs for the moment. Actually, I am really intrigued and excited by all the different ways and object that can be used to organize images to tell a story…. even View Masters.

from the series PolySpam
© Cristina De Middel

from the series PolySpam
© Cristina De Middel

PP: The images in your project PolySpam began with spam texts which you then bring to life in photography. Do you find as much inspiration in the written world as in the visual world?

CM: I find inspiration in the real world. ;-) But it is true that I read a lot and try to go to the movies at least twice a week. I do not consume a lot of photography; I have to say and I love photography books, but more as objects. Literature, movies, drawing… that’s where I get my ideas from, never (not consciously at least) from other photo books or photo-stories because these are for me “problems” already solved by others.

I find it very interesting to translate what you read into something you see because that is how memory actually works… with images and this idea is for me fascinating.

PP: What are you reading right now?

CM: I am reading and old astronomy book from XIX Century and a book called The Magus by John Fowles for the second time because I remember I really enjoyed reading it a few years ago but can’t remember why. I am also reading the little red book by Mao… kind of.

PP: Are you feeling a lot of pressure for your next book?

CM: Well, more than pressure. What I am is impatient to publish it. I had to stop a few ongoing projects to dedicate some time to The Afronauts after all this success, so it has just been a question of going back to work right where I left it.

It is true that I will definitely be comparing the reaction to these new books to what happened with The Afronauts but this is not affecting the content or the subject at all… it is just that I am now curious of what is going to happen next.

I have to say that I am terribly excited with finishing these two other projects and to move on to something else. It’s been two years now since I started and I am used to a more dynamic production rhythm (a side-effect of my photojournalism years).

  1. Thank you, Mr. Padua, and curse you.
    Thank you for the insight into the creation of the intriguing Afronauts volume.
    Curse you, because I can’t afford it either!

    wylie prybar

Leave a Comment