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Photographer Cristina de Middel's Intoxicating Blend of Truth and Fiction

Carlos Álvarez Montero

We talked to her about staging photos, humor, and why she quit photojournalism.

This article originally appeared on VICE Mexico.

Cristina de Middel trained as a photojournalist but chose to drop the profession in order to—as she says—seek reality through fiction. In 2013, the International Center of Photography in New York gave Cristina the Infinity Award for her book The Afronauts, which was based on the 1960s Zambian space program, which aimed to put the first African man in space.

I met up with Cristina for a coffee, and even though we intended to discuss specific photo projects, we ended up discussing her vision of photography, as well as her work in general.

VICE: How come you dropped photojournalism?
Cristina de Middel:
I did it because I was disappointed; I was disenchanted. Maybe I'm very passionate and I realized that if it's at all even possible to change the world with a photograph, it certainly won't be in a newspaper. It'll be on other platforms. I didn't want to be part of the press, because of the way it works now. So I decided to try some other things out, to do things a little differently. I tried fiction because I felt as if there's plenty of times that reality just doesn't explain "actual reality" well enough, which is what interests me—making people understand the world in which we live.

As a photojournalist, you have to respect certain rules and I decided to instead prioritize the fact that I wanted people to understand a story on multiple levels and open the debate up a little bit. Daily newspapers are purely based around an opinion that's already been decided by publishers, advertisers, and politicians' interests. What I prioritize is people understanding what is happening and understanding which factors are involved, so that they can form their own opinions on a particular subject.

Do you think that your photos are a sort of "journalism" that displays what traditional journalism should actually be displaying?
No, I don't do journalism. If anything, I do a sort of documentary. My pictures are all based on real things. I'm not talking about mermaids or unicorns; all of my works are based on something that interests me and something that is actually happening. I think that many things happening today, things that we consume in newspapers, could be explained much better. There's a lot of problems in the world that could be solved with a little more information and a little more understanding.

There's a strong connection between your work and film, right?
Yes, I use film as a reference but understanding cinema is definitely what interests me the most. They're the same; they both use the same optical and chemical system to capture the image and produce it, right? I always give this example: The first film ever screened was this projection of a train entering a station—it made everyone run out of the room thinking they'd be run down.

That was 120 years ago; now we're seeing 3D aliens and nobody cares. The way film is understood and assimilated has evolved, of course. Why? What happened? Something has allowed documentary film to be unapologetic and 3D animation to be unapologetic. What happened with photography? Why are we still waiting for the train to come and run us over? Why hasn't photography developed as fast as language?

What sort of processes do you use to create your work?
I watch a lot of films as a sort of training. A cornerstone of my work is trying to bend reality to exactly what I want, I think that's far more typical of film than photography. I'm not saying that I need a unicorn or something. But maybe I need a bunch of people dancing in the street and have two ways to achieve that: either try to do it as documentary and wait for someone to pass in front of me while dancing—but I could easily spend a lifetime waiting for that; or I can stop a person and say, "Hey, would you mind doing a dance, right here?"

OK, so would you say that your work is a mix of documentary and fiction?
Yes, I think so. I work with a script, and storyboards and all that. For example, I did a piece of work about two years ago called Snap Fingers and Whistle. It's a version of West Side Story but told through the language of street photography. I went to New York and just started asking people, "Hey, do you mind dancing?" Again, adapting reality to what I want the photograph to be. Sometimes that can be a bit confusing for people, because it opens a debate on the credibility of the photograph. On whether you're telling the real story or not. I think a lot about this.

You aren't doing any filmmaking yourself?
You know why? Film requires a huge team, and after many years working as part of the press, I like to work fast. Everything needs to go fast. This wouldn't work in movies because I can't do it alone. I need someone to do sound, and so on. If I could make a film by myself in one day, then I'd do it.

That said, I feel like I can create the same result with photography. What interests me is telling stories with pictures. Film offers a lot of opportunities that I'm sure I'm missing out on. I have tons of movie ideas but what's most important to me is to tell the story visually, and I can do that with pictures, cartoons, or drawings. Maybe someday I'll decide to do something that can only be achieved with moving images.

What about photo exhibitions?
I'm not a big fan of photo exhibitions. I don't like them; I usually don't go.

What would you say binds all of your work together?
The thing that binds all of my work together is a direct criticism of the press and the media. It is not a criticism of the media in general, but rather of how things are reduced and the world is simplified down to "Ten articles, 15 images, and this is the truth."

I like to reflect on clichés, which are a direct result of this type of press. Africa becomes elephants at sunset; India, flower markets, ladies with rings in their nose, people bathing in Varanasi; Germany is people drinking beer. This reduction doesn't leave space for analysis or for criticism or review. It has accelerated the creation of clichés.

That's what I meant by saying that in some way you keep doing journalism.
Yes, in some way. I guess that I chronicle. A photojournalist should learn from artists, learn to tell stories differently, to educate the public and teach themselves to explain things better. Your responsibility is to make people understand what is actually happening.

Artists should also soak in much of a photojournalist's world and see how they're fully committed to reality and recording and explaining the world in which they live. I am really against the type of journalist who goes to Syria to take black-and-white pictures, like some sort of conceptual artist who isn't at all interested in anyone and nobody understands.

So, what do you actually like?
Being in the middle—understanding the language of some but the theme of others. I guess that's why my name is de Middel and probably why I like to be in the middle.

What are you working on right now?
I just came back from Brazil, where I'm doing a project called "sharkification." It's about the favelas and the Brazilian government's strategy to try and control them with Police Pacification Units (UPP). This creates a near militarization of communities, where suddenly everyone is a suspect. That is an issue.

I know the situation well and what I did was make a metaphor, and attempt to explain what the dynamics are there. I used the simile of an underwater world to imagine that the favelas are a coral reef and there are predators, schools of fish, and some sort of fish camouflage. I try to show it as a habitat in which you see both big fish and small fish, and the fact that not all small fish die. Sometimes big fish die, too. I try to use a model that everyone understands, to explain the favela.

To show a truer "reality" through fiction?
Exactly! I try to open up a debate. I will say that the shark is bad so that you can understand the dynamics. I don't care if you agree with me; what interests me is showing you an issue and letting you come to your own conclusions, and to do so, I need to give you a lot more elements than what you are used to being served by the conventional press.

Why do it in such a playful way?
Most photojournalists are continually trying to play with your feelings. I believe that humor is a smarter way to look at things and it helps people become more curious. Why must everything be so dramatic?