In Conversation with Cristina de Middel: Part One
Last year, Contemporary Heroine Cristina de Middel became both a full member of the prestigious Magnum Photos, and its new President. In light of her appointment, Hundred Heroines caught up with Cristina to discuss her artistic practice and how she perceives the role of photography in a continuously developing world.
Hundred Heroines: I’m aware you started your career as a photojournalist before moving towards a more conceptual style. Can you tell me more about how you got started?
Cristina de Middel: I started studying fine art, and at some point I realised I didn’t really like the way the artistic language connects with the audience. It feels like there is a lot of distance between what the artist has in mind and what the audience interprets – as if you need to have read the same books or have the same cultural background to interpret the work.
So, when I was studying, I immediately shifted to more practical crafts like drawing and story board making – I was creating cartoons. In order to have references to draw I started taking photos, with my father’s camera, and because it was during the analog years I think that [using film] played an important role in performing the final seduction…
I fell in love with the darkroom process – the magic of seeing something, deciding it’s worth keeping; and then it disappears because it’s in the film, so you have to hope it will look as you saw it – and then it manifests again through the chemical reaction. The process of finding something, which you lose, and then bring back to life… When you’re painting, you are in control of everything. In [analog] photography you don’t have that much control – it’s an act of faith.
On a more social level, the camera allowed me to go everywhere. I was very shy and very curious, and the camera helped me combine these two strong aspects of my personality.
HH: Having studied filmmaking, I’ve experienced firsthand how people nowadays can mistrust the camera. A lot of your work is participatory. How do you approach this working style?
CDM: When I started, I was very lucky; if I had to become a photographer now I would definitely be a different one to the one I am – the camera wouldn’t have been enough to surmount my shyness. But at the time, people trusted photographers.
I have never been one who hides – I love interacting with people. It’s not about taking the photo, it’s about having an excuse to talk to people; in the midst of interesting conversations, sometimes I forgot to take the photo! I’m very transparent; I say how I feel and how I am, and I did that from the beginning. But it is true that people’s reaction is different now.
There isn’t a formula. For some projects, it’s part of the project to keep some distance. For others, I really need participation. It depends on whether it’s me projecting something or whether it’s something we’re building together.
I would say 50% of my work is staged, or involves collaboration with the subject, but most of the time it’s me being a street photographer, or playing with still lives, or moving things in the environment to see what happens. It’s manipulation of the scene, but not something that involves collaboration. I wouldn’t feel good if the person I was working with had lost control of their image or the way they were represented, and everything was on my shoulders.
HH: When you’re making work, does it sometimes become something totally different from what you intended when you started?
CDM: Totally. And that’s a good sign for me. With the projects, I don’t go there to teach a lesson or show people I’m right – I go there with questions. Sometimes the answers change my understanding of the topic or situation. My projects invite people to follow me finding answers to the questions I think people should be asking themselves.
HH: That makes me wonder – is taking a photograph the act of asking a question? Perhaps some people would interpret photography as more of an ‘answer’, or even a factual object.
CDM: There’s people who ask questions, and there’s people who make statements. There’s people who say nothing, and some who say too much! Photography is just a way of communicating.
You can be forensic, poetic… it’s just like literature. ‘Writing’ can be filling in a form, writing a novel or a play… Photography is just a tool, and it really depends on what the author has to say. There’s people who feel very comfortable saying the truth to others – I’m not that person. I like asking questions.
HH: I read that you were awarded the Spanish National Photography Award in 2017, and when you were given that award, it was for ‘redesigning the limits of the reality of photographic language.’
CDM: I don’t think I have redefined anything, because redefining means projecting a new truth into something. I don’t think I have done anything like that, and I would never want to. I would say that I questioned what was established before, but more to question anything that there was rather than to redefine it.
HH: You’ve spoken before about ambiguity as a strength rather than a weakness; how does that relate to your intention not to convey any particular ‘truth’?
CDM: I think photography is so literal as a tool – so mechanical. It leaves so little room for interpretation sometimes. But if you do not add some layer of subjectivity, then for me, it becomes much less interesting. It’s like reading a form instead of a book.
I know how things are – we have the eyes, they’re good machines. By using the camera, removing something, we are actually adding something. It’s this ‘adding’ that I’m interested in. When photography and documentary are so linked to truth, you’re sacrificing the only thing that makes photography relevant.
HH: I think it’s quite different, the way you incorporate textual elements into your work to create layers of meaning. How does this reflect the way you feel about photography?
CDM: I think that comes from the frustration of working in newspapers – where the text and image have to occupy the same space. From my experience, in Spanish media, the image shows something and the text says exactly the same thing. It makes either the text or the photograph unnecessary and boring. And we wonder why the media are in crisis!
When I worked in newspapers, photo editing was always a fight! I would say to the editors, ‘You’re already saying this with the headline, why do you have to say the same thing with the picture? Why can’t you combine something which expands, a little bit, the understanding of the topic?’ That’s what photography does.
It was impossible. So when I moved out of photojournalism and working with newspapers, all these ideas I had, and all the frustration which came from that – I turned it into something more experimental and creative. So I’m still learning; what happens if you put a word with an image? If you change the word, the meaning of the image completely changes. That, for me, is magic.
I think it’s something we will have to learn as a society, sooner or later, and the audience will have to catch up on all these lessons we haven’t learned – otherwise we’re super exposed to manipulation and propaganda. It’s part of the visual education of the people, and I think photographers have a role to play in that, much more than telling the truth – that should be done by priests, or philosophers, or God, if you believe in God, but not photographers. Imagine if photographers were responsible for telling the ‘truth of the world’ – it’s never going to work.