Interview with Cristina de Middel
Image above: ©Cristina de Middel. This Is What Hatred Did. Lagogo.
KELLY KORZUN: What got you into photography? How did it all start?
CRISTINA DE MIDDEL: I studied Fine Arts with concentration in drawing. I used to make comic books and storyboards, and at some point I decided to build a visual catalog for all the things that looked interesting to me and that I could need to draw afterwards. That’s how I discovered photography. I built a dark room at home and gradually spent more and more time inside there than outside drawing. The magic of the darkroom really seduced me at the beginning. Later, when I finished my studies in Fine Arts, I didn’t feel like I had much in common with contemporary art practice. I felt the message was too encoded and too far away from the audience, so I decided to make a more practical use of the new language I had learned and decided to become a photojournalist. I worked with newspapers in Spain and with NGOs for more than 10 years, and then that same feeling of not belonging that I had when I left university came back, so I had to figure out something. The Afronauts was just an experiment for me. I wanted to try and tell interesting stories with an interesting language within photography, but still within a documentary practice.
©Cristina de Middel. The Afronauts. (left) Ifulegi; (right) Mbulumbublu.
KK: Despite making the critically acclaimed book, The Afronauts, you’d never been to Africa until 2013, when Lagos Photo Festival approached you, asking if you’d like coming to Nigeria and possibly doing another project about Africa. What impact did that trip to Africa have on your life? Had you thought about doing another series about Africa before that offer?
CDM: I had been previously to Africa in 2009, but it was such a frustrating experience – I can't say I understood or experienced anything other than despair. It was a big lesson for me and the first time I was facing the anti-cliché, around which my work has been developing. I was doing a series called Polyspam that builds robotic portraits of spam senders. I needed to feed my visual library in order to stage certain stories in the spams as I realized I had no clue of how an African Bank looked like. There is hardly any visual reference to these “normal” environments coming from Africa as most of what we receive from the continent is the result of some dramatic or exotic situation. I went to Senegal for a couple of weeks trying to take pictures of an attorney, a princess and a bank employee, and it was so difficult! I wasn't prepared for Africa and it's not an easy place to work, but that frustration was the seed of The Afronauts and This is What Hatred Did. I really needed to understand what I was doing wrong. That’s why when the African Artists' Foundation contacted me to show my work in Lagos Photo, it was a no-brainer. Being invited is a very different starting point. At least, I could start with the feeling that I was welcome, which I couldn't experience during that first trip to Senegal. Also, showing my work about Africa in Africa is my number one priority. I was very curious about the Nigerian (and African) reaction to both series, and Lagos Photo is certainly the best platform for that.
KK: The second series about Africa, This Is What Hatred Did, is based on Amos Tutuola’s book, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1954). How did this project come about? What does this book mean to you?
CDM: When I did the Afronauts, I started receiving lots of references from random people suggesting me to read certain books, watch movies, etc. One of these suggestions came from a woman in Spain named Charo. She wrote to me saying that I absolutely needed to read “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” by Amos Tutuola. She was totally right. I am an avid reader – I am very rarely surprised by books. This one is definitely one of a kind! It was also my introduction to African literature, and the structure, rhythm and style was all new to me. I read this book smiling and I really wanted to do something with it. When I was invited to Lagos Photo and we visited the Makoko slum, I immediately saw that that neighborhood could be the perfect metaphor for the bush of ghosts and that approach would allow me not only to do a visual translation of the book, but also describe Makoko from a different perspective, as far away as possible from the photojournalistic cliché.
KK: In this series, you’re re-enacting specific scenes from Tutuola’s book. How did you decide what scenes to choose?
CDM: I made a note or a sketch every time I read something that had a very clear visual translation. Books are a big source of visual inspiration for me, even if they're made of just letters. With this book, it was a constant flow of drawings, but I didn't really know what the reality would be in Africa, Lagos, Makoko. In the end, it really comes down to what you can produce in the field. Also, the narrative of the book is very unusual, so the edition of the images and the order doesn't follow anything linear – it's more about a combination of images that provide an emotional approach to the story. Some images are more literal, others are very metaphorical, but you get the whole idea of the story in an unusual way.
©Cristina de Middel. This Is What Hatred Did. Aworan.
KK: Your process is very thought out – you consider photos as words; they need a sentence or order to make sense and be meaningful. How did you come up with this approach?
CDM: It was very difficult for me to edit my work when I was a photojournalist, because most of the time you build an emotional connection to certain images. Some images have a very strong value for you as you know how hard it was to get them (to gain access, for example), but that doesn't translate into the picture and you still include it in the final edit regardless of its quality or role within the story. I tried as much as I could to avoid that mistake and that's how I decided to use a non-emotional system for editing. It's not a magic formula, but rather a starting point for me to be able to focus on the story and forget about the images themselves. I try to come up with a sentence that explains what I want to say with the images and then I follow its structure to make sure I don't get lost along the way with all these colors and memories you can always find in every picture. My priority is the story, so I need to focus on that and silence these mermaids singing.
KK: During your opening at Dillon Gallery, you mentioned working on a new project about Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Could you expand on that?
CDM: That was definitely a long shot! I still have to finish at least two more projects before I can start that one, but it should happen before the end of the year. “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is one of my favorite books. I respect it so much that I don't even know where to start! I’ve been invited to Colombia in November and I hope I'll be able to take the first steps by then.
KK: Your projects tend to end up with the books which subsequently lead to exhibitions. What is it that attracts you to the format of the book?
CDM: I've always collected books and the bookshelf has always been the nucleus of every place I've lived. I simply adore books. I believe they are the perfect container for stories, which is what I focus on now. You can experience a story based on photographs in an exhibition as well, but you'll never get the same intimacy as with the reading act. You can also mark your own rhythm and dosify the story according to your mood. It gives a lot of freedom to the audience as they are more in control of the situation compared to a movie, a museum, or a gallery. Plus you get an object that is now yours!
©Cristina de Middel. Jan Mayen.
KK: One of your most recent series, Jan Mayen, is a ‘documentary fiction’ reenacting the scenes from a failed attempt to rediscover an isolated island between Greenland and Iceland by a group of scientists; when the expedition failed, the crew staged a landing to cover-up. How did this project come about? Why did you decide to recreate a recreation?
CDM: It comes from a long-term collaboration with the Archive of Modern Conflict, a private collection of photography based in Canada and London. We did a few things together and one day its curator and editor, Timothy Prus, came to me with a wooden box full of glass plates, a couple of diaries and some albums from 1911 with just “Jan Mayen” written on the cover. He thought I would like it and he was definitely right! I am obsessed with how history is created and the role photography plays in the process. This anecdote of wannabe explorers is very symptomatic of that process, but it has something that I also consider very important – sense of humor. It's not only about telling stories, it is also about how you tell them. Most of the time history forgets about sense of humor when it's actually everywhere. The Jan Mayen archive was almost complete: everything was there except the movie that they made when they landed on that Icelandic beach to stage the landing that never really happened, so the only thing I could add to the already amazing story was that missing part. We (me and some of the members of the AMC staff) decided to go to an Isle in Scotland and recreate that movie. It was probably one of the funniest things I’ve done in my life!
©Cristina de Middel. Jan Mayen.
KK: In 2006, you took a training course in International Humanitarian Law and Peacekeeping operations at Spanish Red Cross. What was the intention behind that?
CDM: In 2006, I was still trying to be a serious documentary photographer, if not a war photographer, so wanted to understand the rules of war before I could talk about it with images. It was a very interesting program and I made lots of good friends that helped me in the field when the time came.
KK: You’ve lived in different places: Alicante, your hometown; then you moved to Valencia for M.A in Fine Arts; and shortly – to Barcelona for your postgraduate degree in Photojournalism. Moreover, you worked in London for a while, now you’re based in Mexico City. Which of these cities inspires you the most and what difference do you see in the art communities?
CDM: It doesn't really matter where I live because I spend 95% of the year traveling, so it's more about having a place to come back and feel at home. Now it's Mexico, but I might be moving to Brazil by the end of the year. London was very good in terms of networking and the fact that I published The Afronauts when I was based there made a very significant difference. I doubt that anything would have happened if I was still living in Alicante, because Spain is not the best place to promote your work when you are an emerging artist. However, as much as London was amazing for meeting people and sharing ideas, I never had any project in mind that needed to be shot in London – it just doesn't inspire me. I probably need some chaos I can't understand around me to have ideas, and London is the antipode of chaos! I also have the feeling that there is much more happening right now in Mexico and most of South America, at least in the photography world.
KK: What’s next? What projects are you working on at the moment?
CDM: At this moment, I am in Benin (Africa) doing an artists residency with the photographer Bruno Morais. We are working on a project about the transformations of the African religion that traveled with the slaves from here to Brazil, Cuba, and Haiti. It sounds very serious and anthropological, but still we are using fiction and sense of humor mixed with pure documentary to build a point of view that can help better understand things that are misunderstood and stereotyped.