by Aaron Schuman

Published on 04/25/ 2013

Born out of a frustration with both the clichés and limitations of photojournalism and an enthusiasm for the open-ended narrative possibilities of photography — and inspired by the true story of Zambian schoolteacher Edward Makuka Nkoloso who, in 1964, declared himself the country’s “Minister of Space” and founded his own unofficial space academy in an abandoned farmhouse outside of Lusaka — Cristina De Middel’s The Afronauts tells a fictional story of an African space program during the height of the Space Race. The project was nominated to the 2012 Paris Photo—Aperture Foundation PhotoBook awards and has been short-listed for the 2013 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize.

Afronauts tells a fictional story of an African space program during the height of the Space Race
Aaron Schuman: To start, how did you first get into photography?

Cristina De Middel: I studied fine arts in Valencia with a concentration in drawing, and I initially began to take pictures so that I’d have a catalogue of things to draw. That’s how I first discovered the darkroom, and like many people, I quickly fell in love with the process, so I started focusing more on photography. I then received a scholarship to study photography for a year at the University of Oklahoma; they had all kinds of cameras, equipment, and a huge darkroom, so I really began to experiment.

Then when I returned to Spain, I realized that I wasn’t very comfortable with the “art world” — most of the time, I don’t really understand what artists are saying. For me, artists should be supreme communicators who can really control their language in such a way that it adds layers and depth to their message. But if you add too much, then no one actually gets what you’re saying. I get very frustrated with certain artists and art forms, especially when only a few experts can understand what it’s about. So I decided that I wasn’t going to talk about myself, or my work, using hard-to-decipher messages. Even if I’m telling a complicated story, I wanted to find a way to make it accessible without sacrificing all the layers and depths of the message.

“For me, artists should be supreme communicators who can really control their language.”

Also, at that time I wanted to use photography practically, so I decided to study photojournalism at the University of Barcelona. After graduating and then working at the university for a little while — both in the museum and as a teacher — I moved to Ibiza and knocked on the door of the local newspaper. In Barcelona it was almost impossible to make a living in photojournalism — there were so many people wanting to get into the newspapers — but the door opened in Ibiza, so I started working as a photojournalist.

“If you really want to raise debate and change things, photojournalism is not the platform.”

AS: Was photojournalism simply a means of making a living for you at that time, or were you genuinely committed to it?

CDM: I was very committed to it. For me, it seemed like an opportunity to share my vision, which was one of the reasons that I initially pursued art. But I really wanted to reach a larger audience with simple ideas, so photojournalism was perfect. And also I had this conviction and romantic view of photojournalism at the time; I thought that I could actually change the world, raise awareness, and so on. That illusion lasted for eight years, and then I realized that it wasn’t working. If you really want to raise debate and change things, photojournalism is not the platform — or at least, newspapers aren’t the platform.

AS: Were there any particular photojournalists that you were modeling yourself after?

CDM: At the beginning, the photographers that I really liked were Diane Arbus and Duane Michals, neither of whom have anything to do with photojournalism. I liked Arbus because she documented the strange and freaky parts of society, and I liked Duane Michals because of his use of sequencing. But in terms of great photojournalists, like Sebastião Salgado and Steve McCurry, I’ve never been attracted to very aesthetical or beautiful photojournalism; I’ve always been more focused on what the image says and the message that is behind it — using the photograph as more of a word in a sentence rather than as a definitive depiction of a place or thing.

So in the end, working for a newspaper was not the place for me. I became very disappointed with how photojournalism works, and how newspapers work, because they are companies after all, and the have to make money, so they adapt the product, which is my work. It’s a market decision, and it was terrible. So during my last three years as a photojournalist, when I was working in Alicante for a big newspaper, I started taking my small revenge by presenting my own vision of each day on my blog, which was about what it was like to be working as a photojournalist.

Then at the newspaper, I proposed a new section that allowed me to go around to all of the areas of Alicante — the small barrios — one by one, and focus on the history or local heroes of each neighborhood. It was fantastic, because during my last year at the paper, I didn’t have to go to press conferences or anything like that. I could just make the pictures that I wanted to make. So at the end, it actually wasn’t that bad, because I had my own section in the paper, and they were very supportive.

AS: What were the most common images that you would be asked to take for the newspaper?
CDM: Either pictures at press conferences, or waiting for politicians to go in or out of the courthouse, or bullfighting, or football, or if there was a manifestación…What do you call it in English? When there’s a strike, with people in the street complaining?

AS: A protest?

CDM: Yes, a protest — exactly. The newspaper would report that there were a thousand people protesting, but really there would be only ten, so I would have to squeeze everybody together and go in really close so it looked like a crowd. Or the reverse would happen — there would be ten thousand people protesting, but the newspaper would say that there were just a hundred. So really in photojournalism, you’re documenting the opinion of the journalist rather than what is actually happening. And even if you photograph the reality of the situation, they simply won’t use it.

“In photojournalism, you’re documenting the opinion of the journalist rather than what is actually happening.”

AS:They seem like quite generic assignments; how would you transform these days into your own stories for your blog?

CDM: Well, for example, there are lots of French Algerians who come to Alicante to take the ferry over to Algeria, to visit their families during the holidays. So at these times of the year, there are thousands of cars waiting at the docks, under the sun, with no shelter, no water — with nothing. And at least once a year, for six or seven years, I had to go there and take the picture that everyone was expecting to see.

AS: What was the picture that they were expecting to see?

CDM: Like a picture of a woman holding a baby in the heavy sun, her husband smoking a cigarette with friends in the background, and the Red Cross giving her some water. But this image has no value other than that of an illustration. They wanted a drama — a “refugee camp” image. So one year I did a series that just focused on the roofs of the cars.

I believe that a photograph has a lot of potential because it contains so many metaphorical elements. It’s ambiguous — you’re not stating, you’re just suggesting and hinting at things. And I love this, because that’s what the truth is, or at least that’s my understanding of the truth. There’s not just one truth; each person has their own truth. I just don’t believe in a “TRUTH” in capital letters, but journalism tries to make a business out of TRUTH.

“There’s not just one truth; each person has their own truth.”

I remember in 2006 I was in Syria with the Red Cross, and I saw on the TV that Beirut was being bombed, so I decided to take the two-hour bus ride and go see it for myself. I arrived at the hotel, took my camera, and went out. The first thing that I saw was a beach, but there was a soldier at the gate, so I asked him if I could get in. Then he said, “No, no — this is a private military beach,” and I was thinking, “Beirut is being bombed; didn’t you see it on the TV?” But the reality was that only a specific area of the city was being bombed, and that specific area was made into the TRUTH for the rest of the world, when actually, at the same time, soldiers were having fun in the swimming pool, and people were relaxing on the beach.

For me, it was a big lesson that journalism just focuses on what it needs to say to make money, which is fine, but then there is no room for the rest of the truth, which in my opinion would lead to a better understanding of things. It happens with very stigmatized parts of the world as well, like Africa. I mean, there’s a middle class that lives happily in Africa, but we are given very little information about that. Alternatively, we have a lot of information about the middle class in America. So I actually began to see how our understandings of countries and continents are manufactured, and I realized that I didn’t want to be part of that.

AS: And yet, in the case of The Afronauts, you chose to make a body of work specifically set within one of those stigmatized places?

CDM: Well, the story that The Afronauts tells was perfect for me, because it had everything that I wanted to say, it had this fact/fiction game in terms for the documentary value of photography — it’s something real but unbelievable, so if you take pictures of it, you end up with this weird thing, which you don’t know whether to believe or not. And also, for me, it had the potential to tell a positive story about Africa — to break from the cliché of what we expect from Africa. So, yes, when I found the story it seemed perfect, because I could both position myself against photojournalism and make respectful images about a stigmatized place.

AS: And do that in a way that plays off the cultural stereotypes and clichés associated with Africa?

CDM: Yes. I put together a bunch of the visual clichés of Africa, like the costumes, the textiles, the typically African witchcraft imagery, and so on —all of the things that you find on Google when you type in “Africa” — and mixed them with all of the types of things that you find on Google when you type in “space.”

When I was studying fine art, I concentrated on drawing. I mainly did cartoons, and many of my drawings were like those in Tintin. And that’s where a lot of my own clichés about Africa come from; for me, Africa is Tintin in the Congo, and space is Tintin: We Walked on the Moon. So I put all of these things together, I shook them up, and ended up with The Afronauts.

AS: Do you see The Afronauts as a sort of comic book?

CDM: It’s a book that I would have loved to see as a child — I would have bought it. Yes, for me it is like the best cartoon I’ve ever made. Because, after all, I’m not that good at drawing.

AS: Apart from Tintin, what other visual references influenced you in the making of this book?

CDM: I love photo-novellas, which are still very popular in South America. I’m very interested in how you can use photography to tell a story, and maybe that’s why a lot of my influences come from the movies as well, rather than other photobooks or photographers. I pay a lot of attention to how films are edited, how they’re sequenced, and how the narrative is presented. In terms of the look of The Afronauts, I was influenced by cheap B movies — Barbarella, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Japanese science fiction films. In the 1960s there were a lot of naive clichés in regard to space — Star Trek, and so on — particularly in terms of aesthetics. They were naive about what to expect from space, so it wasn’t scientific. It was more like a romantic view of space, and that’s what influenced me.

AS: Yes, because even the palette within The Afronauts is very retro, and the title itself feels like something from a 1970s blaxploitation film.

CDM: Actually, I don’t see colors very well, and I’m terrible at mixing colors, so I just desaturate everything; that way, I can at least have some control over it. So about three years before The Afronauts, I started using these adjustments and that palette — it’s not only specific to this project.

“I did really want to pretend that the pictures were made in the ’60s, so I had to translate what the sixties were for me in terms of images.”

AS: But inevitably this palette stirs up some sense of nostalgia, and when people look at your book they could get the impression, at least at first glance, that it’s some sort of archive from that time
CDM: Yes, I did really want to pretend that the pictures were made in the ’60s, so I had to translate what the sixties were for me in terms of images, which includes lots of round corners and also that specific palette. I like pushing the game as much as I can; then maybe people will wonder if it’s true or not.

Why choose to tell a story that’s set fifty years in the past, rather than in the present?

Because for me the story seemed perfect, and it happened to be set fifty years in the past. And also, having come from photojournalism, I was taught that you have to respect certain important rules that were defined in the past: “be there,” “be accurate,” “don’t manipulate,” “if your pictures aren’t good enough, it’s because you’re not close enough,” and so on. So I decided to play with that, and The Afronauts does the exact opposite of these rules.

“The Afronauts was the first time that I felt completely free whilst making work, and I really didn’t have any expectations for it.”

Also, I think that The Afronauts was the first time that I felt completely free whilst making work, and I really didn’t have any expectations for it. Of course, I wasn’t expecting to publish in magazines, because it’s not documentary. And I certainly never expected it to get the attention that it’s getting now. At the beginning, a gallery asked me for a proposal, I found this story, I loved it, and I thought it would be a fun project. It was exactly what I needed, because I had just quit my job at the newspaper, thinking that I’d have a year without assignments and pressure — a “Year of Utopia” — and then it became the rest of my life; that is how I did The Afronauts.

AS: Once you got to the point where you had gathered all of the images and documents for The Afronauts, did you collaborate with anyone, in terms of editing or designing the book?

CDM: Yes, it was teamwork. I made the photographs on my own, but then I asked two of my good friends to help me turn it into a book. Laia Abril, who’s a photo editor at COLORS magazine, helped with the edit; I got very blocked, and she just pulled out the entire archive of material and started from scratch — I needed her external point of view. And then Ramon Pezzarini, who’s an art director at COLORS, was in charge of the design. I explained to Ramon the type of book that I wanted — a notebook with photos, collages, drawings, documents; something very simple, but at the same time beautiful. He’s an incredible designer who loves books and paper, so he exhaustively researched different papers, dimensions, and so on

I was very luck to be able to work with them; otherwise, I don’t know what kind of book I would have made. There are certain details and possibilities that I just hadn’t thought of — for example, the translucent paper that we used for the drawings is what is generally used to wrap mozzarella. And while I was working on the project, I bought some Zambian stamps from the 1960s off of eBay, and we actually ended up using the exact typeface from these stamps for the spine of the book.

AS: It seems like a lot of your recent projects — including one that you’re currently working on, in which you are playing off of Chairman Mao’s “Little Red Book” — are directly referencing the 1950s and ‘60s. Is there something in particular about the mid-twentieth century that fascinates you?

CDM:It’s true, and I don’t know why. I just find that it’s very interesting in terms of imagery and the things that were happening at that time. I’m very attracted to the 1960s; it was a time in which a lot of cultural and technological improvements were being made, but there was still a sense of naiveté. And now we’re the result — the poor result — of that, because we’ve lost that naive approach to many things. “The 1960s; it was a time in which a lot of cultural and technological improvements were being made, but there was still a sense of naiveté.”

AS: But with both The Afronauts and Mao’s “Little Red Book,” today we obviously have the benefit of hindsight. Perhaps you’re locating a lot of your work within the past because we have a particular understanding of it now, which we didn’t have then?

CDM: With The Afronauts, I’m starting with the vision that we have of Africa now, but then going back to when that vision began. And this vision persists: we still have a postcolonial vision of Africans, and it’s not helping them.

“We still have a postcolonial vision of Africans, and it’s not helping them.”

We can send a thousand NGOs to help them, but if the international newspapers say that there is just war, hunger, disease, and so on, it makes it impossible for anyone to gain enough confidence to really invest in Africa. So, okay, send the NGOs, but if we just focus on the negative parts of Africa in the media, who’s going to open businesses there, who’s going to bring money, and who’s going to really help them?

“It’s only now that we are realizing that these dreams and utopias — whether postcolonial or communist — are no longer relevant.”

It’s the same with China — a supposedly “communist country,” which is now, in my opinion, the most capitalist economy you can find. So that’s the story that I’m telling — this double morality, using the “Little Red Book” to represent the world’s idea of communism, but then finding something inside it that is completely different, and then adapting the book to reflect capitalist principles.

So it is true that both projects stem from the mid-twentieth century, but it’s only now that we are realized that these dreams and utopias — whether postcolonial or communist — are no longer relevant anymore.

AS: It is interesting that you chose to use your own “Year of Utopia” to look at certain utopias — whether postcolonial or postideological — that have failed.

CDM:Yes, it’s true — I didn’t realized that until now. But my own “Utopia” seems to have gone very well so far!