Thursday, 20 June 2013

Deutsche Borse Photography Prize 2013 - Christina De Middel

On the floor above Mishka Henner and Chris Killip's work for the Deutsche Borse prize were the final two nominated artists.

During her research on strange psychological experiments Middel came across reports about one man's attempt to get Zambia involved in the 1960s space race. It seems Edward Makuka, a high school science teacher, with little funds and a lot of enthusiasm put together a small team of astronauts. A number of men, a spacegirl and some cats, were given some rudimentary training that mostly seemed to involve rolling down hills in oil drums. A lot of noise was made in the media at the time and Makuka requested seven hundred million pounds from the United Nations. But without funds or backing from his government Edward Makuka's dream to put Zambians on the moon came to nothing.

I've wanted to see this work for a while now. I had been aware of the growing popularity (and value) of Middel's photobook, "The Afronauts," through the many photography blogs that I read. The retro aesthetic that incorporated a quirky theme meshed with African culture and space technology grabbed my attention. My initial reaction to this work is that it is very engaging on a human level and the word I would use to describe it is playful.

The work has a strong narrative and it is the human element in attempting to re-create Edward Makuka's dream that I find touching. Alongside the images were newspaper cuttings, drawings, and documents that purported to be archive documents. Black and white images that showed the trainees practicing their mission were also included. Here is where it gets difficult to work out what is real and what is not. Middel blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, playing with the notion of documentary photography as a medium that conveys only truth. It is interesting that when asked about her work in an interview that Middel replies:

I think all I have to say in photography is just a reaction to my days as a photojournalist and in some ways, revenge.

Interview, by Pat Padua. A full transcript from the Lay Flat blog can be found here - layflat blog.

Some of the other OCA students found the images racist and offensive - thinking that Africans were being mocked. I was surprised by this approach because I didn't feel this at all and was purely taken with the notion of a lone man following his ideals no matter what. Also, because there has been some discussion of the same points on the Net I felt sure that Christina De Middel must have been asked about this and I came across an interview in the Lay Flat photography blog - part of which is reproduced below:

PP: Do you think there's a danger that the Zambians project will be considered a joke?

CM: Well, the images are not offensive by themselves in any way. I am not making fun of the project or the idea, and I was very aware of the risk I was taking and how careful I had to be. Yet, it is true that people tend to laugh by only reading the headline "African Space Program," which is actually revealing prejudices that we might not even be aware of. I say the same every time that I am asked about this... if it was a German space program, you wouldn't be laughing, right?

One of my intentions with The Afronauts was to raise awareness of how we consume the image of Africa that is given in the media, and how a whole continent has been stigmatized. This uncomfortable reaction and prejudiced belongs to the viewer as it is not literally included in the images.

Interview, by Pat Padua. A full transcript from the Lay Flat blog can be found here - Lay Flat blog.

Christina De Middel's The Afronauts was one of my favourite series of work I have seen this year. I have a growing interest in constructed imagery and I like the way that she plays with the notion of real and fictionalised events in a playful way to question the documentary genre.

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