© CRIstIna de MIddeL
After the release of her most recent book, Spanish photographer Cristina De Middel thinks it’s highly unlikely that she’ll be allowed back into China. The last time she was there, in 2013, her visa was restricted, and immigration officials made her pay double for it. And when her publishers, RM Verlag and The Archive of Modern Conflict, tried to print her book in China, it didn’t make it past the censors. They ended up printing it in Spain instead.
The reason is that De Middel’s new book, Party (2014), is based on Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, the famed “Little Red Book” of the Chinese cultural revolution, which is thought to be one of the most-printed books in history. To create Party, De Middel went through the book and whited out large portions of Mao’s texts to create a new series of sentences and fragments. She then matched her photographs from China with the texts she created, forming a playful narrative that questions the connections (or lack thereof ) between China’s modern culture and the communist identity it projects globally.
The idea for the book, which sold out quickly this spring, grew partly out of De Middel’s need to find a structure to present the images she made during her travels in China. She first journeyed there in 2011 during a time of personal upheaval. She had spent several years as a staff photographer at regional Spanish newspapers but became disillusioned with the media. “I found that my life lost its meaning, because I stopped believing you could change the world with your photographs,” she recalls. This was before her first, self-published book, The Afronauts (2012), a reimagining of the history of the Zambian space program, became a sensation that catapulted her to international renown in photography circles.
Her trip to China was an escape: No one knew her and she didn’t speak the language. And, perhaps most importantly, she was able to take pictures not because she had to, but because she wanted to and enjoyed doing it. She was able to “start from zero,” she says, adding that photographing was “actually the best therapy I could have. I was okay again in two weeks.”
Before she traveled to China, De Middel had perceived a disconnection between China’s communist identity and the reality of the society, and that idea was confirmed by her trip. “Once you are there it’s quite evident that people are very different from what they say they are, in a way,” she says. De Middel looked for pictures that explored this idea and came back with 3,000 images. Some of them were staged, but most were observed moments.
Her idea to use the “Little Red Book” with a rearranged text arose partly because English is her second language, and she often has to reread texts several times because she will “get a weird meaning” from a first read. This happened with Mao’s text, which she read in English. On the first page, when she read “The Communist Party,” she keyed in on the double meaning of the word “party.” The thought of a communist celebration jibed with her impression of China. “The idea of ‘Communist Party’ describes what China is, if you just change the meaning of the word ‘Party’ to a proper party,” she explains.
She began carrying a copy of the book around with her, experimenting with the text. One of the earliest lines in De Middel’s book reads, “If there is to be revolution, there must be a party.” Facing the text is a picture of a young woman in a floral-print blouse dancing in a bar. While there is a playful tone to the opening pages, there are combinations of text and photographs that are serious or abstract throughout the book. An image of a group of people in a smoke-filled landscape sits opposite a text that reads, “We ought to face the world and brave the storm.”
De Middel wanted the tone of the book to fluctuate and to challenge and surprise the viewer. She points out that in movies, music and lighting might signal to viewers that they are watching a drama or comedy, and similar “codes” can be employed in books and photography series. “I like when there’s surprise and I like when people don’t know how to react,” she says. “You are forced to reposition yourself, because normally the messages that you have are very straightforward.”
The possibility for multiple interpretations reflects her personal experiences, in which “sometimes I like things and, two minutes later, they’re terrible and then I laugh about them.” Reality is complex, in other words. “I try to convey that in the works I do,” she says. “I want to present reality as rich as it is, and I’m sort of helping you to approach reality from different angles. And you have to decide in the end what you think and what your opinion is, because it’s all about you deciding.”