Cristina de Middel is a Spanish photographer whose work blurs the borders between reality and fiction. Her breakthrough book The Afronauts (2012) told the story of a real failed space program in 1960’s Zambia, which aimed to put the first African man in space. Back then Cristina had actually never been to Africa. The Afronauts was shot in Spain. But the book became a success, sold out quickly and received much critical acclaim. This resulted in the Lagos Photo Festival offering Cristina to show her work in Nigeria.
She took the opportunity, travelled to Africa and created her latest book This Is What Hatred Did. Following the success of The Afronauts a lot of people started sending Cristina references for books to read about the continent. One of these books was Amos Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which This Is What Hatred Did is based on. We had a chat with Cristina about the process of making the book, dealing with local African kings and the dangers of photojournalism.
Your book, This Is What Hatred Did is based on the African book, My Life In The Bush of Ghosts (1954). Can you tell me what that book is about?
Cristina de Middel: The book tells the story of a 7 year old kid whose village is attacked by soldiers and he has to run away and hide in the Bush of ghosts. It is a magical place in Yoruba culture where no humans are allowed and where all the spirits and ghosts live. He spends there 30 years lost and trying to find his way back home meeting all sorts of mysterious creatures.This is like a really reduced synopsis… it is much better if you read it and that is why the whole text is part of my version in photographs. I really want people to read that book.
I read that you made sketches every time you read something very visual in the book and then recreated them in your photos. Were some of the sketches especially hard or impossible to recreate?
Cristina de Middel: It was not an easy project to make because of the difficulty in gaining access to Makoko, the neighbourhood where I decided to stage the whole story in Lagos. My sketches were quite basic and with not too much detail because I know I could not go to crazy on that. In the end I managed to take the picture of almost all the ideas I had sketched.
And you had to seek permission from the local leaders before shooting?
Cristina de Middel: Yes, I had to get the permission. It is quite an intense neighbourhood: a floating slum and there is no way I could go incognito at all. I had to meet the community leader (or king, as you wish) and slowly gain their trust. This was the hardest part of the process because it was quite difficult to explain what I wanted to do and why I needed their help.
What is the story behind the image with the boy covered in white hair?
Cristina de Middel: I´d rather not explain the meanings of my photographs. They are supposed to be understood as images. If you read the book you will certainly identify the character or episode that I am referring to.
I read that you dropped photojournalism because you were unsatisfied with the way the press often doesn’t explain actual reality. What do you mean by this?
Cristina de Middel: Well, we could go in a philosophical debate here to determine what “actual reality” is, but I will not solve myself here what has been a debate for centuries, neither the media are going to do it. I have nothing against photojournalism but I came to the conclusion from my experience that the media are using it to reduce the description of the world down to 4 or 5 news a day and 4 or 5 images (most of the time stereotypes) a day. I think it is dangerous and we need to be aware of that danger. Documentary photography for me is just not enough to explain our world and our society and there is other codes in photography that should be completing that portrait that has been left in hands of the media that are nowadays anything but neutral.
In your eyes, what kind of damage has documentary photography done?
Cristina de Middel: Documentary photography englobes lots of types and ways of telling stories with photographs. I would rather say “photojournalism” because it is the images that appear on newspapers and most magazines that for me are the most dangerous. Through this simplification that I talked previously entire continents have been reduced and labelled to a handful of clichés. Africa is a good example as it has the worst marketing campaign in history and we (people from developed countries) are completely ignorant about the richness and cultural variety of the continent… we just assimilate Africa to war, droughts, famines, migration, etc and we are completely missing the point.
You try to break stereotypes and clichés with your images. What is the biggest misconception you experience people having about Africa?
Cristina de Middel: I think the worse is how people are scared of traveling to Africa as they see it as a dangerous place. It is one of the most fascinating places to visit on earth.
Did you feel like you had a responsibility to portray certain sides of the African culture?
Cristina de Middel: I do not feel I have any responsibility at all. I just want to share my opinion. I am not stating any truth here, I am not a newspaper 😛