Cristina de Middel Interview
DE: What intrigues me about your oeuvre is that many of your projects are framed within two frameworks: an overarching, often universal idea, and a more localized, personal narrative within that. How do you choose and research your projects? And in the case of The Royal Pinedo, can you tell us how the project began?
CM: I participated in a big exhibition called Africa Americanos, a survey of all the remains of African descent in Latin America. That’s when I learned about the king of the Afro-Bolivians, but it's always been a story for one day in the future. I thought*, I will do it, I will do it,* but I kept postponing, or waiting, maybe for someone else to do it. Then all the stars aligned and I could actually do it this year just a couple of months ago.
There’s research in this case, but sometimes my research is very random, but at the same time, very precise. I follow a very weird thread of connections, and all of a sudden, I find some guy who does something exceptional and that is actually very representative of a bigger problem. I love working on the surface of things and the result is superficial, but it's not superficial in a generic and meaningless way. It's something that is on the surface, but actually speaks to something that is much deeper as the result of a chain of consequences or events. What you actually see is surface, the small anecdote that reaches us, but the rest is what I'm really interested in.
DE: There’s a narrative thread I would love for you to speak more to: Julio Pinedo was the great grandson of Uchicho, a king of the Kikongo tribe who arrive from the Congo as a slave. What was the journey that led Uchicho from slave to king?
CM: Julio Pinedo, was a great grandson of a teacher, King of a Congo tribe, who arrived from Congo as a slave. What was the journey that led a teacher from slave to King? There's different versions: of course, there’s no historical record like there is for other facts in history because the slave trade is not really very well documented; there is very little documentation and it has not been well preserved. But if you do a little bit more research here and there, you find out the version through accumulation. So it's difficult to say, but somehow, they know it's the Congo tribe, but they don't know where to locate it. There was a thriving slave trade and the result, among others, were tribal wars. Normally, what would happen is that in a war between two villages, or between two tribes, all the prisoners would become slaves and would be sold as slaves to go to the new world. The whole village was taken as a prisoner and then as slaves, but in the journey, even if they were separated, the story is that a few members of that village, of that kingdom recognized the king, so they started treating him as a king.
So he arrived, officially, let's say in the papers as a slave, but the people around him kept on treating him as a king. The people in his village would take double shifts and spare him the hard work of being a slave–that's what some say at least. But of course, it's difficult to track.
DE: Can you speak more to the reluctance of Julio Pinedo who is still very much connected to his life as a shop owner? Does this at all relate to his great grandfather’s story?
CM: Yes, that was maybe the surprise I didn't expect when I arrived in the small village, because I knew I was not going to meet a traditional king in the sense of royalty, as I knew it. You could see that the man is very nice, very kind, but he was tired of telling the same story over and over. On the other hand, his son is completely enthusiastic and did his homework: he's studying political science, and he's really preparing himself to become the king when his father passes, so there is this idea of exhaustion of a king that not everybody takes seriously.
Also, they’re generally not even as well recognized as indigenous people in Bolivia, but this is the result of a combination of very sad and terrible events, and the combination of the worst of humanity. He also was working in Bolivia, where the rights of the slaves were not considered, but also as a territory where African descendants were practically erased from the decision making, and from the presence in society. That’s slowly changing and it's a beautiful thing, but also a very sad thing. I always liked stories that have two layers that allow you to relate more with an image. It's not—shocking or cute—it’s a mix of feelings and not just one single emotional reaction to an image.
DE: What are the political dynamics at play between their small tribe and Bolivia at large?
CM: It's not really a tribe, it is a community. King Julio Pinedo is the king of the Afro-Valerians. All the small communities of African descendants in Bolivia are actually his kingdom. Yet they are mostly localized in and around Los Yungas, which is an area maybe like a six hour drive from La Paz the capital. It's more tropical with a climate that is much more gentle than the one you have in La Paz. It’s a very fertile area where they cultivate most of the coca leaving Bolivia, which is one of the biggest if not the biggest producer of coca leaves. There are different dynamics and it depends on who you ask in the community. If you ask the old people, they love their King because it represents a certain tradition. It reminds them of something about their parents. If you talk to the younger generations, who are much more like activists, more aware of the rights they have, and all the fight they need to have in order to establish their presence in the decision making of the country. They feel somehow abandoned by the king, or they don't think he has the leadership that a king should have. The younger generation complains about the passivity of the king all the time, so there's also that extra layer of reading.
DE: With that being said, what types of images did you feel were important to capture while you were developing this project?
CM: That to me is interesting because I normally work with longer term projects where I can build narratives and come back and elaborate, maybe sequence. But for this collection, there is a sequence, but it’s more loose, and it’s less established than if it was for a photo book because of time constraints. It’s just like you open the door, you look, you understand the context, and then you close the door again because the story's not finished. If I had to organize this project for a book, I would need to see what happens and add a time dimension to the story, which also goes very well with this topic of royalty.
I wanted to play with the idea of an official portrait, so I took portraits of the king and the queen, and also, the prince. The way he dresses is less reverential and doesn't have the uniform of royalty. Also, I really wanted to show the community because it's quite interesting to see how you mix the Cholitas, and the sort of rural tradition of Bolivia, which is very strong and very visual with African descendants. There’s this mix of Bolivia and Africa that is quite unexpected. I took portraits of the mothers of the Cholitas, these women who work in the fields and how their skin is black, but they were in the traditional Bolivian rural dress. I also wanted to explain, through the series of portraits of women, and also very young people, this mix of African Bolivia.
Then there’s another topic, this community is in the area that’s an important place for mining and for coca leaf cultivation. I wanted to document the coca leaves being linked to even a bigger problem that is cocaine trafficking in Latin America. It seems like a small, small village that has samples of very diverse consequences of very strong topics around the world—from slavery in a historical perspective, to royalty, to race and minorities, the war on drugs, and the production of drugs, and legalization of drugs, etc. All these you can find there.
DE: Many of your projects have an uncanny quality to them, how much planning goes into how you conceptualize and execute an image? Are you outlining the images you need to take before you take them? How much narrative control do you exert?
CM: I think there is an evolution in my way of working: I was a photojournalist, then I took a big jump for the astronauts project and everything was very much controlled. The storyboard and planning were similar to documentary [photography], but the way I approached shooting was closer to advertising than documentary. Since I joined Magnum, I'm sort of coming back to documentary, but not forgetting what I want to say and how I want to say it–I pay little respect to the truth if I don't have to, but instead, pay respect to the greater story.
Now, I basically have a few outlines, a few ideas that I want to explore, and maybe a few images that I want to do, then I move things around. When something is visually expected or boring, I just move a few things or direct the people that are in the picture just to do something that’s unexpected. By adjusting the elements, it suddenly gives a different reading or an extra layer of significance to the image. It's quite intuitive or instinctive. I don't know which word to use, in this case, maybe a combination of both. But I would say that just 20% is planned. The rest is just being there, spending time. It's not all staged though and it's not all documentary—it’s a mix and sometimes the formula changes.
DE: When you received the Obscura Curation Commission, knowing that the images would first be minted on the blockchain as NFTs before being seen anywhere else, did you approach the project any differently? Or have you been thinking of your process differently within the context of the NFT space? Are their constraints or opportunities that you otherwise wouldn’t have?
CM: That's funny, actually, because it's a new way for me to work and I've learned a lot during this process. Also, I have no reference within this space yet. When you’re ready to publish in a magazine or you're going to turn a project into a book you can look at other books and you can ask an editor. In this case, NFT collections are pretty new. I mean, for me even more, because I'm also pretty new to the NFT world, so I had no reference. In this case, I gave a selection to Obscura, there was another pass, and then it was the third selection that worked. I'm really curious and looking forward to seeing the result.
Also, I collect a little bit of NFT photography; I know at least what I like. I use the same formula that I use when I work for editorial. For example, I approach the story the way I would like to read the newspaper. In this case, I created the images that I would like to collect as an NFT collector. I had to stop and think to myself, Is this a good image? Does it stand alone? Would someone love to have it in their gallery or would love to have this in their collection? Will it dialogue well with other images that they have in the collection because the story will be fragmented. Is that image representative of the whole story? It's a different way of editing. I'm pretty sure at my age—and maybe I'm now playing the old lady—to be invited to reconsider all the formulas I've been using during all of my career is very exciting, to be honest. I hope to learn more and I'm really looking forward to seeing the reaction of the collectors and the reaction of Obscura.
To view the full collection of The Royal Pinedo by Cristina de Middel, visit:
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Cristina’s Website: http://www.lademiddel.com/
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