Juror Spotlight: Cristina De Middel

In 2013, Spanish photographer Cristina De Middel’s debut series The Afronauts immediately demanded the attention of viewers. A collection of seemingly alien images featuring disembodied elephant trunks, dusty unmarked switchboards, and figures donning hazy orbs in place of heads, the series requires a bit of background information to comprehend.

Back in the 1960’s, a Zambian high school teacher decided that Africa ought to have a foot in the international space race. So, over the course of a few years, he headed an attempt to launch several young cadets (and a few cats) into space. For one reason or another, the curious affair sparked something in the mind of Cristina De Middel.

Captivated, she began to meld fact and fiction into photograph. Models wearing spacesuits inspired by traditional Zambian garb traversed jagged, rocky landscapes. In her attempts to resurrect and re-imagine history, she sought to close the divide between the vast universe and our own strange world. People were fascinated by the strangeness of it all – she went on to receive an Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography as well as numerous career opportunities when her self published book hit the press.

In the five years since Cristina De Middel first attracted the public eye, she’s managed to put out an almost unbelievable amount of new work. Not one to shy away from experimentation, she’s left few stones unturned. She’s traveled and documented her experiences around the world. She’s propped mirrors into landscapes, left models bright blue amongst colorless industrial landscapes. Autocakeography even attempts to document personal moments in the form of decorative cakes.

Looking over Cristina de Middel’s work, it’s impossible to ignore the playfulness and imagination she embeds into every aspect of her photographic process. However, as time has gone on, she’s proven to be more than a creative eye. Often tackling conceptually complex subject matter, she manages to break her thoughts into something that’s digestible, yet not entirely self explanatory. In short, she leaves room for her viewers minds to wander as well as her own.

Her most recent body of work, Gentleman’s Club, manages to be thoughtful, comical, and insidious all at once. The idea itself – to turn her camera towards the everyday men that pay for oft exploited sex workers – is easy to wrap your head around. But the way she chooses to portray her vulnerable subjects (and their stories) is nothing short of captivating. All staged in intimate settings, the features of some men are hidden amongst dark and foreboding shadows. Other are bathed, half naked, in sunlight streaming from small bedroom windows. These characters, usually excluded from the larger conversations looming around the sex industry, are transformed into human beings that can be empathized with.

Along with each photograph, Cristina De Middel includes small bits of information  – names, ages, occupations. Family lives. What they’re willing to pay, and what they hope to get out of the transaction. Carefully crafted, each piece paints a vignette that offers a glimpse into the client’s soul. In hopes of creating a more global portrait, she aims to visit prostitution hubs across every continent and continue the series in depth. Most recently, she completed a stint in Bangkok.

Thanks to her unwillingness to remain stagnant and her inventiveness as an image maker, Cristina De Middel became a Magnum nominee in 2017. But, of course, Cristina De Middel’s end goal is far from fortune and notoriety.  Playing along the edges of fact and fiction, her images relentlessly challenge onlookers to reevaluate their truths. Through her unusual collection of staged and organic moments, she has strived to drive herself (as well as anyone else along for the ride) toward new realities, yet to be explored.

All photos are courtesy of Cristina de Middel