Taking time out from the making of her Afronauts book to talk to Don't Panic, Cristina de Middel describes the creative process behind blurring fact and fiction, and recreating Zambia in Alicante. We can't wait to get our hands on a copy.
Could you explain the story behind Afronauts?
The Afronauts series is based on a real but unbelievable fact: the attempt from a group of Zambians, lead by the High School teacher Edward Makuka, to fly to the moon and then to Mars with a rocket and a catapult system. It was in 1964, in the middle of the Space Race and right after the country had gained its independence from the UK.
For me, apart from the exoticism of the fact or the funny first impression, it has been a unique chance to give a different approach to African reality. I have worked as a photojournalist for 10 years in newspapers and with different NGOs and I really felt that no attention was paid to daily life in the continent. We are most of the time given a post-colonial and condescending portrait of Africa and I wanted to show that while we may not share the same level of technology, we do share dreams.
Do you enjoy mixing elements of reality and fiction in your work? What reaction do you hope viewers will have in response to this?
Well, this is a reaction to all these years in the media: I developed some sensitivity to the relation between the photographic image and Truth. In my personal projects I love to play with the audience. I am really interested in documenting facts that are unbelievable but true and other phenomenons that are completely false but people tend to believe.
It is also a way for me to experiment with other storytelling possibilities that are not as strict as photojournalism, and yet, a much funnier way to use photography as a communications tool. I just find it necessary to open the debate or at least to redefine what is the load of veracity in the photographic image and what we can expect from it. It is a way of questioning this blind faith we have on image and I believe it is a necessary reflection to be done.
Was it your first time in Zambia? Did the project change as you spent time there?
Actually, I never went to Zambia. I worked on the photos just like a movie-maker would do. My budget was very low so I had to squeeze the photographic medium to get the most out of it. Many of the pictures were shot in Spain, near my hometown, Alicante, and in the suburbs of Madrid. Some others were shot in the Dead Sea and I also used a few images from my archive of previous trips to Senegal.
There are also some tricks like the picture with the space saucer and the trees. It is actually something floating on a pond, but the image is turned upside down and it looks like is flying in the sky.
It has been really funny to shoot the whole series because I felt completely free to do whatever I wanted. I had no boundaries in terms of image manipulation and veracity. I just needed to translate the story into something beautiful and easy to understand with a very limited budget. Making something big with little resources… just like some Zambians in 1964.
Your photos have quite a specific look - is there any particular reason you choose to work with nearly square images with rounded corners?
I customized that aspect of the images to give them a vintage look. I just respected the way that the hypothetical reportage would have been done in the 60s.
The Españ series is beautiful, could you tell us a little about it? How long a period were these photos taken over? Did you envision them as a series from the outset?
This series is like a melting pot where I have edited the tons of pictures I have been taking in Spain almost since I started as a photographer. They were, at the beginning, just snapshots or street photography but with the crisis and the situation that Spain is facing now I found it interesting to give my opinion on my country. It is a sweet and sour portrait of a place I know very well: a place I love and hate at the same time. Also, I moved from Spain more than one year ago so I could have more of an outsider's approach when editing the images. Your perception changes a lot when you no longer belong.
You're currently working on the Afronauts books - do you enjoy seeing your work in this format? It's increasingly rare to find work like this being published in any way other than online.
It is radically different to publish a series of pictures in a magazine and to publish a book. You, as an author, consider, control, measure and decide every single aspect of it, and it turns into the ultimate step in the creation for photographers. I could say with no doubt that the book is way more important than the exhibition, because it has permanence.
And yes, it is rare to find this kind of proposal in printed press because this platform is normally reserved for strict documentary work. I think editors are afraid that the audience could believe the pictures are real and it is an understandable worry. Still, I didn´t produce the series thinking of magazines or newspapers, I just produced it because it was a good story.
Online publications have played a very important role in spreading the word and reaching audiences I would have never reached if I had just published the series in a Sunday magazine. The structure and engine of the media have changed so much in the last years that we all have to be flexible and try not to be pulled down by the weight of habits and acquired knowledge.
You can find more of Cristina's work on her website.