December 18: The first movie I remember seeing was Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. It scared me witless. He was this odd little man in constant danger of being chewed up by machines, one of which, a Taylorite efficient feeding device even forces him to chew! I can remember hardly daring to dodge and stretch in my seat to be able to see the screen. The audience laughed. I can’t remember if I managed to stop myself weeping in terror. My father was then a film critic and it was one of his favourite movies. The showing of Modern Times he took me to was in 1954 or ’55, so I was three or four years old. I’d never seen a moving image before; it made an impression.
Significant because of its appearance during the Depression and in the midst of world upheaval, Modern Times was Chaplin’s first overtly political movie – it was anti-capitalist – and the first in which his voice was heard; it also marked the beginning of this silent-era actor’s decline in popularity.
Cristina de Middel, born in 1975 in Alicente Spain, is showing The Perfect Man at Juana de Aizpuru Gallery, at Barquillo 44, 28004 Madrid, Spain. The exhibition is based on the first 10 minutes of Modern Times movie as its script from which came her sequence of photographs presenting working conditions in India and the conflicted, colonially-imposed ideal of the perfect male citizen of that country.
A photojournalist with a Postgraduate Degree in the discipline from Barcelona Autónoma University (2002), she took a car off from her six-year job as a staff photographer for a Spanish newspaper in 2010 where she ‘felt like a robot’, to try a life of creating work on her own terms, and self-publishing and exhibiting it, with a lively conceptual approach, but with the political sting she had desired for her press work. Her first artworks were fictitious portraits of Nigerian spammers. Now 41, at Paris Photo in November she launched three new books and started her own publishing house, This Book Is True, promoting the work of her own and other photographers.
The Perfect Man adapts the classic workplace portrait we have come to know since the Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives or Lewis Hine’s Men at Work, or in Russian revolutionary propaganda. In introducing her portraits de Middel writes “In India the industrial revolution never really started and never really stopped but the Western standard of the new perfect man was imposed and embraced on top of an already elitist cultural structure. The results are confusing.”
Monochrome is so often the medium for such photographs, despite the unfortunate current trend of ‘colourising’ Hines’ images of children in factories, and that is what de Middel uses, but each image is ‘hand-coloured’ with the blue used from mediaeval times to represent the revered dark skin of Vishnu, Krishna, Arjuna and Draupadi in Hindu art, ‘the colour of fresh rain clouds’.
The photographs adopt the same camera-aware comic stances as Chaplin, and the men are made victims of the machine they work for also.
These are photographs made in actual workplaces, somehow negotiated with factory owners and supervisors, but no doubt regarded with bemusement on the part of the workers themselves. They are a refreshing satire with a serious political intent; where the huge population of India works, what they work for, and what materials they work with, is of consequence to the whole world.
De Middel self-published a photobook The Afronauts (2011) for which she was nominated for the 2013 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize alongside Mishka Henner and Chris Killip. It is a story of the short-lived Zambian space program which began in 1964, started after Zambia gained independence by Edward Makuka Nkoloso, sole member of the unheard of National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy. In “The Afronauts”, de Middel builds a version of the story out of the now mythical status of the programme, whose aim was to send the first African astronauts to Mars. Amusingly anecdotal, the fiction comprises posed colour photographs with drawings and reproductions of letters. The Afronauts was produced on a limited budget in Spain (not Zambia) combining the clichés of space-suits (made by her grandmother), flags, the first step on the Moon and the absence of gravity with African commonplaces of elephants, barren landscapes and big-patterned colourful fabrics.
After a year and a half of work, The Afronauts became a book that when launched at Arles immediately sold out, with Martin Parr, photographer and champion of the photobook, buying five copies. In 2013 it received the Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography, amongst 8 awards across a number of fields in photography that also recognised David Goldblatt for lifetime achievement.
Cristina de Middel’s Sharkification imagines the favelas of Brazil as a coral reef where the battle between the police and drug gangs can be seen as sharks in pursuit of small fish.
With the 2016 World Cup and the preparation for the Olympics Rio de Janeiro, domestic interest turned to “cleaning up” of the favelas to fight the increasing violence in these neighbourhoods controlled by drug traffickers. A greater presence of the police force in the streets might have avoided a military solution but trapped and silenced the inhabitants of the favelas, now considered suspects by default. Amnesty International reported that at least 11 people were killed in police shootings in Rio’s impoverished favelas in April 2016 with at least 307 people were killed by police last year, accounting for 20% of the homicides in the city.
Using a handmade blue plastic filter De Middel, in her Sharkification series (book and exhibitions), represents the situation in Rio de Janeiro as taking place under the sea with the sharks being the opposing forces of the police and drug traffickers and the shoals of defenceless fish the poor civilian of the favelas:
I turned the police into the sharks, that hunt for survival, and the civilians into the small fish that use camouflage strategies to survive to support my aim to bring some fresh air to the debate and also to build a portrait of the community that does not feed the black and white cliché of the favelas that we are used to consume.
Have we reached a point in photojournalism where audiences are oversaturated and in a state of ‘compassion fatigue’? One has only to look at world apathy and inaction around the situation in Aleppo to be convinced this is the case. De Mittel has turned her back on conventional reporting on the struggles of the poor and disadvantaged for good reason, and she is one amongst many. Chaplin’s The Great Dictator capitalised on the similarity between his toothbrush moustache and Hitler’s to broadcast his own fears about the World order and about capitalism in Modern Times. De Mittel, through her humour reveals much about which we are rightly scared witless. She sees herself, as she says “redefining what is documentary photography and playing with the potential of the photographic image in story-telling,” and links the approach to cinema in which we suspend our disbelief; “we don’t go home from a movie mad at the director for lying to us”.
When we encounter a comic approach like hers, whether in her books or exhibitions, or on her scrambled, hilarious website, its legitimacy is proven in our reactions; we slow down and we take time to think.