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.
In that sense, de Middel’s photography can be seen as a cross-pollination of the skills she learnt as a photojournalist, mixed with the disdain for the claims it has on lofty ideals of ‘truth’. Fiction and ephemera, she says, can be just as revealing.
“From my point of view, you need to be inventive, and imaginative, and have a sense of humour, to really understand what’s happening,” she says. “If you just rely on what’s put in front of your face, not only do you get a very small portion of reality, you don’t get to understand where the image has come from. The world is so complex now, you can’t rely on anything. You need to look for as many portions as possible, and you do that by using fiction and imagination and irony and history. There is no straightforward reality so, to understand it, we cannot be straightforward.”
This idea of enhanced reality runs across each of the three new projects she launched at Paris Photo this year. Each, in its own right, is radically different, exploring different, complex communities from different, complex perspectives. But each finds a way of finding an understanding of its subject by placing documentary photography within an interpretative prism.
Perhaps the highest profile of de Middel’s new work is the photobook version of This is What Hatred Did, a conceptual exploration of the tougher parts of Lagos, Nigeria – her home while she curated the photography festival there. Inspired by the 1954 magical realist novel My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts by Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola, De Middel used the story of a young boy separated from his family when his village is attacked by militia as the basis for an original photographic essay on Nigeria, recognising the intermingling traditions and practices that shape contemporary the country’s culture.
“The only way he can survive is by entering the bush, this magical territory where no humans are allowed and where all the Yoruba spirits live and fight,” De Middel says of the original novel. “He spent 30 years in the bush, trying to find his way back home. He was married twice, became a king, a slave, a cow, a jar, a horse, a goat, ate gold, silver and bronze, snakes and snails. He fought two wars and was sentenced to death half a dozen times. All in just a hundred pages.”
The metaphorical significance of this fantastical story played on De Middel’s mind. In her time in Lagos, she’d become familiar with Makoko, one of the city’s toughest neighbourhoods. “Makoko is a floating slum commanded by kings and with its own rules,” de Middel says. “A place where no logic seems to prevail, that is forbidden for those who do not belong. I decided Makoko would make for a great metaphor for the bush.”
“Journalists go to Makoko to feed the stereotype, and cliche, of Africa; photographing poor people in a beautiful light,” she says. “I wanted to find a way of talking about that place from a different angle, to explore their cultural fears and hopes. I chose that neighbourhood as a setting for the book, to see how one acted as a metaphor for the other. It was my way of providing a richer understanding.”
Also launching at Paris Photo is Sharkification, which springs directly from de Middel’s Lagos work. When de Middel exhibited This is What Hatred Did at the Lagos Photography Festival, a Brazilian photography collector approached her. She was intrigued by how had documented the slums in Lagos, and asked me if she would be happy to visit her in Rio “to try to work something similar to describe the favelas.”
De Middel, typically, jumped at the chance. “I started in September last year and there was for one month, but I didn’t know how to approach the favelas,” she says. “Unlike Lagos, I didn’t have a book or a structure as a starting point, so I started thinking and reading about the favelas. There’s a strong and open debate about them in Brazil. In part due to the World Cup and the Olympics, the Brazilian government has been trying to clean up the favelas, to change the strategy on how they’re dealt with. The image of Rio is traditionally related to the favelas, so they have tried to find a way to accommodate that by creating a specific arm of the police which has grown up in, and still lives in, the favelas.. The idea is to integrate the police into the favelas.
Some people agree with it, other’s don’t. There’s oftentimes a very black and white attitude; police are good, police are bad, narcos are good, narcos are bad. My idea was to try and move past that debate and experience the favelas from a more comprehensive point of view.