An interview with Cristina De Middel



6 minutes reading

Cristina De Middel is a Spanish photographer based in London who has been working for the past 10 years as documentary photographer and photojournalist for various newspapers and NGO’s around the world. Her self-published book The Afronauts was critically acclaimed, making it to the top of many notable photo book lists and is now an almost impossible item to find. She is currently one of the four finalists for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2013.

In April 2012, De Middel presented another body of work at Slideluck Potshow London. Entitled 'Made In', it focuses on the economic power of China, documenting Chinese youth, their habits and everyday challenges. She speaks here with Slideluck’s director, Maria Teresa Salvati.

Made In is a multimedia project, combining square format photographs with music and videos, leading to reflection about the social, relational and psychological status of a confused Chinese generation. What about the Chinese culture attracted you and what was your aim when you were shooting and later collating this work?

Well, I arrived in China not following a story or my curiosity. I was just given the opportunity to spend a few weeks there and I was, at the time, figuring out how to escape my routine and life. I do not like to turn my pictures into a personal diary but in this occasion I really needed to re-discover the joy of photography after many years of photojournalism so, I let myself go and just reacted with the camera to everything around me. Honestly, I was not thinking about an idea in particular, just shooting. Then, when I came back, I realized that I had actually documented the cultural 'lost in translation' feeling and searched for people that could be feeling the same as me, that is, Chinese teenagers.

Is Made In a finished project or do you intend to expand it or recreate it using a different format?

The multimedia was edited for a platform in Spain that organizes projections in Seville. They asked me to do something and I thought it was a good way to start and try to put some order in this chaotic Chinese archive that was waiting for me in the drawer. It is not a finished project I am now working on the best platform for it…a book.

You have developed a specific style of infusing serious subjects with humour. Do you deliberately steer away from the documentary dogma of being 'truthful and objective'?

I do not think it is something deliberate, it is not a conscientious statement as far as I know (myself), but these are pictures I took just for fun, and when I do this, my personality and way of approaching people or subjects is more visible than if I play the 'serious and reliable professional'. I can’t help seeing the funny part of things and I simply don’t believe anymore in the strict value of photography as a document. It’s been a while since I started documenting my opinion on things rather than Real things and in that virtual space I feel like at home.

How do you choose the topics you want to explore? And do you think your playful and colourful style is applicable to document any subject?

I normally work on many topics at the same time. Made In is a clear example because I just found (after 2 years) the solution I was looking for. I normally consume a lot of weird news and strange events around the world. I literally track them back and keep them in a folder named 'Future Features'. And then I also read lots of ‘standard’ newspapers and go maybe too much to the movies… My work is just the combination of these two research lines I have. Ok, I won’t call them 'research lines', let’s better use the word ‘obsession’.

Regarding the playful and colourful style, I guess it all comes together. I need to share as much as I can of my perception in the images and what I do is just re-designing reality and filter it to make it more fantastic and unbelievable. The camera allows you to play a lot but we forgot most of the games during this Documentary Crusade we have lived in the last century.

Your work has been compared to that of Joan Fontcuberta, who also explores the relationship between photography and truth in his own personal humoristic language. Do you see any similarities with him in the methods or the results of your work? Or how is it different?

Well, this is a tricky one! I, of course, admire Fontcuberta's work and believe he is one of the most inspiring and genuine photographers out now. I think we may share a tangential approach to reality and certainly a similar sense of humour, which is fantastic, but he is hundred times more experienced than me. I just found a personal way of being honest with my work and I am really enjoying this moment because I feel I am just starting over again with new eyes.

Also, we have very different backgrounds but maybe we came to the same conclusions in the end. Fontcuberta comes from the advertising industry, which deliberately manipulates the image to make a product more appealing and increase the sales. I come from Journalism that covertly manipulates reality to make it more 'suitable' and increase the illusion of security, menace or crisis in public opinion. In both cases a debate is to be open and with a sense of humour things become easier.

In 2012, you published The Afronauts and it became an instant hit. Can you explain what happened? Do you feel that you can equal that success with Made In? Why or why not?

Well, I am not sure of what is going to happen with Made In because even if I wanted I would not be able to retrace the Afronauts phenomenon and try to repeat it. I still do not understand what happened with that book, honestly. It has been one of the most incredible and enriching experiences in my life and I keep on learning every day, about the market and about myself -- especially after more than 30 interviews!

The only thing I can do is work with the same spirit I had when shooting The Afronauts, that is doing things as I believe they should be done and keep on working. I am normally very productive but these last months I have had to change my rhythm and freeze a few projects that were already started. Having said that, I think I came up with a funny and deep solution for the Made In series. I also had this 'Eureka' moment a few weeks ago.

What’s next for Cristina de Middel? Could you give us an idea of what we can anticipate from your next projects?

This year is turning really busy for me -- I have 10 exhibitions programmed and many lectures and workshops -- so the main challenge is to survive! My intention is to publish 2 more books this year, and start 2 more projects I have in mind. I cannot tell you more, firstly because it would be like giving away the solutions to a puzzle, and secondly because I am not sure I am going to survive!

View the photographic series Made In in our online portfolio section, or watch this vimeo presentation. The Afronauts by Cristina de Middel was included in the books section of GUP #34, What We Like². To learn more about The Afronauts, read our blog post about its unexpected success.