Cristina de Middel, one of the most famous, and prolific, photographers in the world, reflects on a remarkably fertile year after the “explosion” of Afronauts, as she joins the revered INSTITUTE roster.
When I contact Cristina de Middel to ask for an interview, she’s in an airport. When we speak on Skype a few days later, she’s preparing for another flight later that day. When she sends us her images, she does so from a departure lounge.
Talk to other photographers on the festival circuit, and de Middel is referred to with a lot of affection and a tiny bit of resentment. It’s as if they might be remembering an old friend they haven’t seen for a long time, and can’t help feeling a little rejected, a little jealous.
For de Middel was, once, one of them. She was a photojournalist who no longer towed the editorial line, choosing to go it alone and focus on her own work, embracing a more conceptual approach, jettisoning the press for the art world. De Middel was hardly alone in doing this, and she was there, at the festivals, competing for attention like everyone else, necking the free wine at everyone else’s gallery launches, worrying about the bank account. Now 41, de Middel has levelled up, and is now recognised as one of most interesting and distinct new voices to emerge in photography.
She is extraordinarily prolific, working on many projects at once – and not just her own. At Paris Photo in November, she launched three new books, while also showing Vicente Paredes’s Pony Congo, the first offering from her new publishing venture, This Book Is True.
A month earlier, she had been in Nigeria for the opening of Photo Lagos, which she guest curated alongside creative director Alafuro Sikoki-Coleman, before travelling to three more countries to discuss or scout new projects she’s planning, a brief stint home, and then to the French capital to present the fruits of her hard work and travels over the past two years.
That work has culminated in her joining INSTITUTE. Now represented by Matt Shonfeld, known as one of the best agents in photography, de Middel will now have, for the first time, a respected agency looking after her work, even as she continues with her independent ethos.
“For me it is a great opportunity to rely on them regarding the commercial distribution of my work,” de Middel tells BJP of her new involvement with INSTITUTE.
“I have very little time for sharing my projects with publishers or even advertising companies. Plus I am terrible at negotiating. So I guess it will make things easier for me to focus on my work and leave the outcome part to them.
“I will of course continue my self-publishing practice and my collaboration with galleries, but it is good to know that someone is actually taking care of supporting your career at a commercial level.
“I have always admired INSTITUTE and all the photographers that are or have been part of it, so it was a great surprise when Frank Evers contacted me.”
It hasn’t always seemed so pre-determined, so artfully planned out. “I’m bad at strategy and good at instinct,” de Middel says. “That’s why I’ve lived the life I have. Photography is like play to me, like a game I’m addicted to. I know people look at me and say, ‘She’s made four photography books in one year. She must be completely crazy.’ But I feel normal. I know how to handle my time. I’m able to think about many things at the same time. I always have a lot of projects on the go.”
De Middel is half-Belgian and half-Spanish. She currently has a home in Mexico City but has, by her own account, spent three weeks there so far this year. She has lived in the UK, France, the US, Spain and Belgium, and spent elongated periods in Haiti, India, Bangladesh, Senegal and Nigeria.
This nomadic nature hasn’t always been the case. With a grounding in fine art from The University of Valencia, de Middel left her six-year job as a staff photographer for a Spanish newspaper in 2010. She was fed up and cynical, suspicious of the editorial line her paper had to follow, she felt, led by shadowy corporate forces. “I felt like a robot,” she says. “I was shooting the same stories over and over again, and my pictures would always be used in the same way. After a while in news, everything can feel very cyclical.”
In her own time, de Middel worked on her first conceptual series, Poly-Spam, which centred on fictional portraits of the people who send emails instructing you to claim untold millions. The series was well received at the Photo España festival in Madrid in 2009m, and a burst of international press attention tentatively established de Middel as a promising conceptual photographer. But few people, let alone her, could have envisioned what would happen next.