Independently Published Photobooks: Cristina De Middel

© Cristina De Middel, from Party

Post by Antone Dolezal

Following Cristina De Middel's highly successful self-published book The Afronauts, the Archive of Modern Conflict and Editorial RM have teamed up to publish her new book Party. Using Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s widely distributed communist propaganda publication the Little Red Book as a narrative structure; De Middel takes us through a dark and humorous journey of hypocrisy and failed Utopia. Party combines reconstructed text from Mao's handbook and the artist's own photographs taken during her travels through China. Party can be seen as both a comment about China's political façade and as an intimate diary that insinuates the artist's own lost hopes and desires.

In the second installment of Independently Published Photobooks (first installment here), De Middel discusses the evolution of her own publishing and creative process and gives insight into how to fund and market an indie photobook.

© Cristina De Middel, from The Afronauts

Antone Dolezal: We met briefly a few years ago when I worked for photo-eye Bookstore and you were in town for Review Santa Fe. You had come in to show your then new self-published book The Afronauts and at the time you had mentioned you had boxes of your book sitting at your home. It couldn't have been more than a few months later and your project had become one of those rare sensations that a lot of people in the photography world were talking about. What do you think were the contributing factors that led your work to take off in the way that it did?

Cristina De Middel: I think there were several reasons. The first being I did a campaign, a crowdfunding, but not using any of the standard platforms, just through Facebook. One of the ways I funded the book project was through selling special editions that came with a print. The special edition was set to 50 and I managed to sell 30 before the book was made. Making it available through Facebook helped a lot of people know about the story when the book came out.

Definitely going to portfolio reviews helped. The most important one was the Arles festival in France. At this point the book was made; it was weird because many people who go to portfolio reviews are at a different stage and I was just there because, in a way, I was buying the time of the reviewers so they could get a copy of the book. The reviews were basically giving the reviewer a book. Everybody is at Arles and what happened was one of the reviewers showed it to Martin Parr and then he contacted me the day after and that was the changing point with the whole thing because once Martin Parr started saying that is one of the best books of the year, then it just became viral and everybody went crazy about it and I sold the 600 books I had in a matter of two months.

© Cristina De Middel, from The Afronauts

AD: Did Martin give you any advice on how to get those books out into the world?

CDM: Yes, Martin gave me advice and a lot of the things he had suggested were things I already had done, such as getting it in the hands of reviewers. Another good piece of advice I had received was from a very good friend who is a photographer, Ricardo Cases, who did the book on pigeons in Spain (Paloma al Aire). He sent me a list of people I should send the book to to get a review, such as Alec Soth, and some of the photobook blogs. So, I sent about 10-15 books to a number of these places. Martin really showed the book to very important people that opened the market a lot and promoted the book at a level I could never have done by myself.

© Cristina De Middel, from Party

AD: Your new book, Party, takes a very different approach to storytelling than that of The Afronauts. There is still an imaginative quality to the work in Party, but the mood has turned a darker corner. I'm curious to hear what led you to China to photograph this series?

CDM: Well, the thing is that the pictures that are now in the book Party were taken before The Afronauts, so I wasn't that much into staging and working in fiction. I was in China because I took a sabbatical for a year from my job as a photojournalist at a newspaper and instead of complaining about how bad the market is and how hard it is to be a photographer, which is what most photojournalists do, I said ok, instead of complaining, just take a year and do the things the way you think you should do them and if it doesn’t work then you can complain!

© Cristina De Middel, from Party

I went to China because it was a very special moment for me because of some personal problems and I needed to get away as far as I could, so I was just enjoying and rediscovering photography after many years of photojournalism.

So after I published The Afronauts and the whole thing had changed for me, I wanted to publish a book with this material I had from China. I took the Mao book because I thought it was the perfect platform and the perfect structure for the message I had about China. But this book is chronologically before The Afronauts.

© Cristina De Middel, from Party

AD: While the individual photographs in this book contain a very intimate quality, the series seems to be mostly found scenes. What was your process of photographing for this series?

CDM: It was really about going back to the beginning for me: the reason why I started taking pictures, reacting to things that I didn't understand and documenting the small parts that surround me. Like street photography mixed with personal diary. So with Party there is no production, no staging, nothing. It's walking, meeting people, following stories and taking pictures that suggest a bigger idea through the small details. I came back from China with 3,000 images that I liked, but there was no story behind it. So, I used the Mao book to give a structure to the series.

Everything I thought about China was that communism is really a big joke, so I made the whole thing into a funny game. But the book can be read as a political statement, which it is - I am using one of the strongest political books that there is. The book can also be read as a personal diary because it revolved around a very sentimental break-up; you know those moments in life when you don't believe in anything and it is the failure of a utopia? So it can be read on two levels, as a political statement, but also as a personal diary to reflect the failure of a dream.

© Cristina De Middel, from Party

AD: There is also a quality of transformation in the book, both with you and also in the whole Chinese society that is portrayed. It is certainly a metaphor for your personal experience as well.

CDM: Yes, it was a perfect journey for me; it was exactly what I needed.

AD: So you didn’t have an initial idea of what you were trying to convey when you began photographing?

CDM: I had the big picture. China is one of the last communist countries and it is still ruled by a Communist party but at the same time it is one of the most aggressive economic powers and a capitalist society, so it is hypocrisy. That was the big idea, to try and document this by little parts and to confront the traditional China and bring the basis of the statements and formal system to real life by adapting the Little Red Book to my own opinion and turning it into something that comically made sense.

© Cristina De Middel, from Party

AD: You use Mao's Little Red Book as a structure to tie in the photographs. In fact, you omit words from the LRB and choose to tell your own experience of Chinese culture through your use of selected text. The language you choose has an underlying and allusive sense of conflict and suppression that hints at the country's past and even current realities, but also convey certain personal undercurrents. Could you elaborate on your decision to use Mao's LRB as a structural format for expressing your personal experience during your time in China?

CDM: You go to China and you know it's a communist country, but you find out it's not at all, it's completely the opposite. So it was about adapting the reading of that book and turning it into something more honest. You could make a lot of sentences, the combinations are infinite, but I chose the ones that support this simple idea that China is formally communist, but it actually is not. It was a very funny exercise to do.

© Cristina De Middel, from Party

ADParty was published through the Archive of Modern Conflict and Editorial RM. How did it come about to collaborate with these publishers?

CDM: The Archive of Modern Conflict contacted me right after publishing The Afronauts because it is the kind of story they like. And since then we have been collaborating on many different things. Most of the projects I am involved with now are related to archives I have found with them. So it is this huge support and I love the way they work and we get along very well. And with Ramón from RM we are just friends, we met after The Afronauts. My experience has always been through self-publishing and I have everything under control… I decide everything, so basically I just want to work with friends that would respect my decisions. I guess I couldn't work with any publisher because I know exactly what I want and it can become a bit difficult. So, I just work with friends that will say, 'Ok, whatever Cristina!' So at the moment I am very lucky, it's a very funny and enjoyable process to work with these two people.

AD: AMC is probably my favorite photobook publisher at the moment. And I know that is a pretty bold statement, but it seems serendipitous considering your personal conflict and the conflict presented in your new work that it would be published with AMC.

CDM: AMC approaches different subjects in a wide variety of ways. They have a more open mind than most of the market. Maybe it's because they don’t have to struggle for economic support, but they have a system in which they are allowed to be brave and more experimental. It is a blessing for me; working with them gives me complete freedom. It was definitely the best thing that happened to me after the success of The Afronauts.

© Cristina De Middel, from Party

AD: Do you see yourself continuing to self-publish in the future?

CDM: Yes, I really like the self-publishing process. It is a funny thing to do, it means a lot of work, but now I have a certain structure and I can work in a different way.

AD: What advice would you give to photographers who are pursuing self-publishing?

CDM: I think the best advice would be that publishing a photobook doesn't have to be rooted in your equation from the very beginning. You have to be honest when doing the series and consider – as it happened to me - that you might have to talk about this series for two or three years. So you need to be really really sure about what you did.

With some series and some projects it's not a good idea to do a book. The best way of showing your story or sharing your idea could be an exhibition, multi-media, a video game, I don't know, there are so many possibilities. So make sure that the book is actually the best platform for the series. Once you are sure, just try to be as visible as you can. Submit your work to all of the competitions, go to portfolio reviews, be active on Facebook, and really make your work visible. You have to be very active at being self-employed.

© Cristina De Middel, from Party

Cristina De Middel (Spain, 1975) is a photographer based in London that has been working for different newspapers in Spain and with NGO's such as Doctors Without Borders or the Spanish Red Cross for more than eight years.

She combines her strictly documentary assignments with more personal projects that have been awarded and exhibited in several occasions (incuding PhotoFolio Arles 2012, Deutsche Börse Prize and the Infinty Award from the ICP in New York).

This B-side of Cristina's work deliberately asks the audience to question the language and the veracity of photography as a document, and plays with reconstructions or archetypes that blur the border between reality and fiction.

Antone Dolezal is a New Mexico based artist and writer who primarily makes work about the American social landscape and its relationship to history and folklore. His work has been featured on NPR, Oxford American, Huffington Post and PDN Online and his writing has appeared in photo-eye, Ahorn and Fraction Magazine. Antone recently published his first photobook Spook Light Chronicles vol. 1 with collaborating artist Lara Shipley. Vol. 2 is available for pre-order.

© Cristina De Middel, from Party