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.
De Middel works entirely independently, and her next photobook, Afronauts, was self-published. She talks now of her “feelings of panic” after funnelling all her life savings into the project, and then counting the multiple boxes of unsold books that lined the walls of her bedroom. Afronauts was de Middel’s reimagining of Africa’s first space program. Soon after Zambia declared independence in 1964, school teacher Edward Makuka Nkoloso, founder and sole member of the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, began working on a plan to send the first African astronauts into space, to the moon, and then on to Mars. “It attracted my attention,” she says, “precisely because my first reaction was, is it true or isn’t it?”
She brought the mission to life without actually stepping foot in Africa, using as her backdrop the dusty landscapes and dilapidated industrial architectures in the more remote outreaches of Alicante, her native city. The Afronauts were Spaniards with African heritage. De Middel’s 92-year-old grandmother designed and created most of the spacesuits and African dress.
De Middel is Exhibit A of the Martin Parr effect. The British photographer and photobook collector singled out her book in Arles, and promptly bought five copies. His interest spread through the festival by word-of-mouth, as hype does in Arles, and Afronauts began to sell, very quickly. De Middel originally charged €28 for the book, with an initial print run of 1000. She sold every one of the books via her website, and the demand in the independent book shops she had convinced to stock the book was uncharted. Within the space of a year, she had sold out. Now, Afronauts (which de Middel plans to re-release next year) passes hands for easily north of £1000. She had, by this time, been nominated for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize. There was a sense of irony to the occasion; The Photographers’ Gallery had declined de Middel’s offer to sell Afronauts in their bookshop before Parr anointed her as the Next Big Thing.
Since then, for the last two years, she’s accepted every invitation her new profile has afforded her. One gets the impression she has done so because she is very aware of just how fleeting success can be. “I think I was too scared to think about what just happened,” de Middel says of her sudden flush of success. “I didn’t want to acknowledge the pressure, so I made the decision just to take on more and more and more work. I try not to waste time thinking. I wanted to find out whether I was good enough – maybe I’m not, but the sooner we know, the better.”
How does she characterise that pressure, I ask. Who did she feel pressure from? “From my photojournalist friends, because I had gone to the dark side. I felt pressure from them to be successful at conceptual photography. I felt pressure for being a woman. And I felt pressure as a newcomer, as the underdog.” And how did she deal with it? “I decided not to listen to anyone. I hate people telling me what to do. I do everything I can to avoid that. If I’m my own boss, I can put pressure on myself, and irritate myself.”
In the year after Afronauts was launched, de Middel worked furiously. The results were remarkable in their variety. First came Las Piedras Jamás, a book published earlier this year “just for the members of Los Doscientos (The 200 Hundreds)”, a Mexican cartel notorious in her notional home of Mexico. Based on an archive from the newspaper “Alarma (also known as Alerta) and the violent lyrics of traditional Mexican folk music, the series “explores the different ways we consume violence.”
“Death and photography have always been related,” De Middel says. “From the belief of stealing someone’s soul to the forensic practical use and initial portraits of those who could not move anymore and would stay quiet for the required long exposures. There is something in photography that defies time passing by, and death coming by.”
A discernible theme runs through De Middel’s new work – what she calls “enhanced reality,” the act of “exploring the fluid border between fact and fiction.”
“Stories are ways of telling a story of the world we live in,” she says. “And sometimes reality doesn’t provide with me the elements I need to explore a story as I see it.”