Zambia’s Forgotten Space Program

Cristina de Middel’s photo essay The Afronauts entrances the viewer from first sight.

Using her camera, true events, and her imagination, Cristina de Middel unfolds the Zambian Space Project in a seamless blend of fantasy and reality, illustrating a determined story of dreams and beginnings.

This is her description of what she wanted to show:

In 1964, still living the dream of their recently gained independence, Zambia started a space program that would put the first African on the moon, catching up to the United States and the Soviet Union in the space race.

Only a few optimists supported the project by Edward Makuka, the school teacher in charge of presenting the ambitious program and getting its necessary funding. But the financial aid never came, as the United Nations declined their support and one of the astronauts, a sixteen-year-old girl, got pregnant and had to quit. That is how the heroic initiative turned into an exotic episode of the African history, surrounded by wars, violence, droughts, and hunger.

As a photojournalist, I have always been attracted by the eccentric lines of storytelling and have avodied the same old subjects told in the same old ways. Now, with my personal projects, I respect the basis of the truth but allow myself to break the rules of veracity, trying to push the audience into analyzing the patterns of the stories we consume as real.

The Afronauts is based on the documentation of an impossible dream that only lives in the pictures. I start from a real fact that took place fifty years ago and rebuild the documents, adapting them to my personal imagery.

In an email interview, Cristina de Middel, writing from her home in Mexico City, takes us through the personal process that built The Afronauts and led her to develop a new genre of photo storytelling.

As a former photojournalist, how did you decide to add fiction into your work? What kind of emotions did it evoke to try something new?

I quit my job as a staff photojournalist in 2011 and indulged myself with one year of pretending stories could be told in a different way and believing the audience would be able to understand and reach deeper levels of communication through photography. My starting point was to deny all the basis of the reportage. I wanted to play with photography and all the potential I could still recognize in it, after ten years of telling stories in a straight (and “true”) way. I was not inventing anything, but I wanted to try and break the holy link there is between truth and photography that I had lost all respect for. An unbelievable story was perfect for that, like what happened with The Afronauts. You could say that I’d lost the excitement and wanted to free myself and try new ways of telling stories much more related to the old way of telling stories and sharing information—just like storytellers by a bonfire, in a way.

Describe the moment or situation that instigated the beginning of your new style of photography?

Basically, I was terribly disappointed. What I got disappointed with was not the role of the journalist, which I think is extremely necessary, but about the platform that is used to share these stories and the way people consume that kind of “product.” I still work with some publications if I’m allowed to work according to my own style, to edit the images I think are relevant, and to approach the subject from my own angle.

A critical approach is needed to photography, and it is dangerous to assume that everything printed on a magazine or newspaper is true.

I used to think that photography could change things, even small things together with journalism, but at some point I realized that before being able to do that, we needed to understand and learn how to consume photography. A critical approach is needed to photography, and it is dangerous to assume that everything printed on a magazine or newspaper is true, so I decided to start doing that, working on projects that could raise the debate and force people to ask themselves if what they see is true or false.

What was the biggest risk you saw when beginning this new style? What role does risk play in your work?

The risks? Not many, because I felt, work-wise, I had nothing to lose. And I love taking risks. It’s the only way to get to know myself a bit better.

What do you think fiction adds to real events?

I had started to feel that traditional documentary doesn’t allow much creativity. I can explain it better referring to my work. I did a series called Poly Spam, where I selected eight spam emails and built portraits of the persons who, according to me, would have sent them. I was playing with fiction, but the audience assumed the portraits were real. For me, it was an eye-opener to how people consume photography. The link between photography and truth is super powerful and also quite dangerous. I think we need to play with that. But, for example, looking at one of my latest projects, This Is What Hatred Did, I was trying to do something very absurd in a very dramatic place. And in the end, it turned out well, and I managed to convey the idea of Makoko (the place in Lagos where these pictures were taken) that I recognized and I wanted to share.

This also partly answers your next question about how my work has developed and how it will evolve in the future: In a way I gained a lot of confidence achieving this project compared to the first time I tried to work in Africa, which was in Senegal, where it was absolutely impossible to work. That was more than eight years ago and being able to go that far in describing the continent now—I consider that to be very rewarding. I really think I can raise more awareness on the subjects that I think are relevant from the position I am now.

How has your work developed since you went out on your own?

The Afronauts has radically changed my way of dealing with photography. The work process in itself is something I have always done, but now I’m more serious about it. I can do what I want. I don’t have to care about the boundaries of documentary. And now I can engage in even more crazy ideas! Now I keep on challenging myself, but now it is to see how absurd things can get around me. There is definitely a performative part in the way I work now. I create crazy realities and document them as a photojournalist.

I’ve always been more focused on what the image says and the message that is behind it—using the photograph as more of a word in a sentence, rather than as a definitive depiction of a place or thing.

What is your process to initiate a new project? How do you find stories that you find compelling to shoot?

In my working process, pre-production takes way more time than the actual photography. It’s not only about finding the images. Telling a story means creating action and some tension to it—more like making a storyboard. I consider myself a visual storyteller who uses a camera.

My ideas I find surfing on strange websites. That’s how The Afronauts started, for example. I ended up on a site about Zambia’s space program. I realized what an unbelievable true story I had found, which I could use to convey all these opinions that I had about Africa and about documentary photography.

I normally have plenty of ideas. Some are good, some are really stupid. But I follow them all as much as I can and according to the time I have. I write a lot and keep all these ideas in my diaries, and the inspiration can come from a conversation I hear in the subway, from newspapers, or from any simple anecdote I come across.

How do you know when you’ve come to a compelling blend of fact and fiction?

Photography is so versatile that it allows me to play in many ways. I mean, people tend to believe it’s true, because it’s photography. A passport photograph is never going to be questioned, and I like that faith we have in photography.

What was the reaction (from the public, fellow photojournalists, other photographers) to your first work? Has it changed?

Regarding The Afronauts, I was actually expecting stronger feedback from people who do not understand the idea, because I am aware that I was portraying Africa in a very different way. I just received a couple of critical emails from white people in South Africa, which is very understandable as there is maybe an open wound there. Other than that, I have had the chance to show my work in Africa many times, and the feedback has always been very positive.

Who do you admire in your field? Why? Do you have influences beyond the field of photography? Who and why?

At the beginning, the photographers that I really liked were Diane Arbus and Duane Michals, neither of whom have anything to do with photojournalism. I liked Arbus because she documented the strange and freaky parts of society, and I liked Duane Michals because of his use of sequencing. But in terms of great photojournalists, like Sebastião Salgado and Steve McCurry, I’ve never been attracted to very aesthetic or beautiful photojournalism. I’ve always been more focused on what the image says and the message that is behind it—using the photograph as more of a word in a sentence, rather than as a definitive depiction of a place or thing. Other things that influence me are the unknown, the under-reported, the forgotten details, the excess, people’s dreams and fears, movies, and literature.

How will your work continue to evolve or change?

That’s hard to say, since there is so much going on at the same time. But I think I will keep approaching contemporary issues in a non-classical way. I really think I can raise more awareness on the subjects that I think are relevant from the position I am now.

Cristina de Middel is a documentary photographer and artist living and working in London.