Cristina and the Afronauts / by Graham Dew

umfundi © Cristina De Middel
umfundi © Cristina De Middel

If you follow modern photography to any degree you will have undoubtedly heard of Cristina de Middel by now. Last year she self-published her book The Afronauts and her career has accelerated from newspaper photojournalist to the darling of the art photography world, currently nominated for this year’s Deutsche Börse prize. When I saw that she would be presenting at a Guardian Masterclass alongside The Guardian’s photography critic Sean O’Hagan and Bruno Ceschel of Self Publish, Be Happy I knew I had to make the effort to attend. I’m a keen reader of Sean O’Hagan’s wide knowledge and balanced commentary. As he said in his opening remarks, self-published photobooks seem to have reached a critical point as a means of delivery of an artist’s delivery of their work to waiting world. While there have been photobooks as long as there have been paper prints, a physical book that can be placed in the hands of key critics and curators seems to now be a viable way  to present one’s work to the world. For many types of photo project, it would seem to make more sense than a me-too website or ruinously expensive exhibition.

iko-iko © Cristina De Middel
iko-iko © Cristina De Middel
I must admit I had first railed against the Afronauts when I first saw it described online. The premise of the book is that just after independence back in the sixties Zambian school teacher Edward Makuka Nkoloso, declared in a moment of high excitement that the new country, like Russia and the USA would have its own space program. Of course, nothing came of this wildly optimistic aspiration, but De Middel took this simple idea and developed a plausible photo story based on our common conceptions and iconography of both Africa and the space race. I guess my concern was that such a story could be construed as a way of presenting Africa and Africans as backward and foolish. Having listened to and spoken with Du Middel I am sure now that her intentions were only to illustrate and develop a rather ridiculous story that happened to have come from Zambia, and as a consequence, involved Africans. In a similar way, Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards managed to paint a rather singular picture of Britain’s skiing abilities…

hamba © Cristina De Middel
hamba © Cristina De Middel
As it turned out, none of the photographs were made in Africa. Many were shot near her home town of Alicante in Southern Spain. The props for the photos were similarly home-grown. A converted street light served as a space helmet, the space flag was invented for the story, and the African space suit was sewn together by De Middel’s grandmother. The space control centre was part of a disused factory; the derelict space capsules were the drums from old cement mixing trucks. The only genuine space item was a Russian cosmonaut’s jump suit that was used and decorated for some of the pictures.

ifulegi © Cristina De Middel
ifulegi © Cristina De Middel
De Middel has played with our belief in the truth of photographs, and our willingness to suspend our disbelief in order to absorb a story. She has done this well. The completed book (original price €20, currently changing hands at €800) is small, like a notebook or instruction manual. It rather reminded me of some children’s books from my past and those of my children. There were lovely transparent interleaves with space diagrams, and typed letters to characters in the story. The pictures of Afronauts staring dreamily into space in some of the pictures, and the naivety of the original story, served to reinforce this impression. I rather loved the whole concept and its execution.

Cristina gave us an entertaining and informative talk about her development as a photographer and the motivations behind the series. She also provided good, straightforward advice in the book discussion sessions later in the afternoon.

jambo © Cristina De Middel
jambo © Cristina De Middel
The other story that will captivate many photographers is the way that De Middel has followed the courage of her convictions, and gave herself a year away from photojournalism to realise The Afronauts. She told us how she decided that she would ‘have a year of living in Utopia’, believing that The Afronauts would be only successful, and devoting all her energies to make sure that this would happen. It is a shining example of positive thinking becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps the Zambian space program required just a little too much self-belief.

botonguru © Cristina De Middel
botonguru © Cristina De Middel