Theory & Practice

Welcome to My Playground: Cristina de Middel Shares Her Teachings

Magnum's President opens the doors to her creative universe in our new online course.

“Photography has always been very much linked to truth,” Cristina de Middel explains in the first of 18 chapters that make up our new online course, Stranger than Reality. “But what happens if you take that responsibility away from photography and just use it as a language without limitations?”

De Middel, who last year became Magnum Photos’ latest president, refers to herself in the course introduction as a visual storyteller rather than a straight-up ‘photographer’. She explores photography’s ambiguous relationship to truth through a myriad of approaches and styles, often mixing documentary and staged photography. And, by consequence, she avoids being labeled or defined as a specific kind of photographer, be it fiction, documentary, creative or other.

Filmed at her home and studio in Brazil, she opens up over the next four-and-a-half hours about the purpose of her practice, not as a tool to communicate specific ‘truths’ — a problematic word as she explains later in the course  — but as a way to explore complex subjects in a layered, nuanced way in order to raise questions or challenge certain stereotypes.

“I’m interested in things that have multiple ways of being understood, things that are incomplete,” she explains, “many times the extremes of society.”

Hambita. From the series, 'The Afronauts,' 2012 © Cristina De Middel/Magnum Photos.

Over the past 10 years, De Middel has published more than 13 photobooks. One of her first, The Afronauts, which would bring her to international attention, was what she now describes as a “risky bet.”

The project began when she was still working for a local newspaper in Ibiza, and she self-published the book both with the support of a university in Spain and by investing her personal savings. A risky bet, but one that paid off sooner rather than later, as that year, it was picked up by Martin Parr at Arles. De Middel suddenly found herself having coffee with the revered British photographer, who had been a great source of inspiration to her several years before.

“I was totally paralyzed,” she recalls in chapter seven of the course. “Imagine the shock — me, a staff photographer at a local newspaper in Spain, and then all of a sudden, Martin Parr is having a coffee with me and telling me that my work is great. It changed everything.”

From Boa Noite Povo © Cristina de Middel and Bruno Morais

"Photography has so many rules. That leaves the door open to breaking all of them one after the other and seeing what happens."

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Cristina de Middel's book, 'Party: Quotations from Chairman Mao', published by Archive of Modern Conflict in association with RM Verlag, in which she redacts texts and adds her own visual annotations.

Since then, she has gone on to work on a hugely diverse range of projects and photobooks, from a playful redaction of Chairman Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’, inspired by her time in China, to Midnight at the Crossroads, a collaboration with Bruno Morais on Esù, a divine messenger in African spirituality.

The course also devotes a chapter to her latest book, Gentlemen’s Club, which flips typical representations or conversations around sex work on its head by focusing on the clients. 

Rubens, 28 years old. Trainer. Single. He pays for prostitutes three to four times a month and pays from $5 to $20. His first time was when he was 22, the day of his his best friend´s birthday. He (...)

The project started from an urge to tackle head-on one of the aspects of photography that she was least comfortable with: “I’ve never considered myself an especially good portrait photographer, I get very nervous… So I came up with the idea that, ok, I needed to learn how to do portraits.”

Over seven years later, the project has turned from an experiment into a global inquiry, and has now been exhibited in Europe and North America. If there’s one lesson to take from Gentlemen’s Club, it is to tackle your insecurities head-on. This is exactly what a chapter in the accompanying workbook encourages participants to do — one of the many tips and tools she reveals as ways to develop your photographic practice.

Above and below: stills from Magnum Learn's new online course, 'Stranger than Fiction.'

"Photography is not a job for me. It is still a passion, and it is still a playground."

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Most of the chapters of the course, apart from the more active case studies in which we see De Middel out on a shoot or sequencing in her studio with her cat for company, follow a similar rhythm. De Middel’s honest revelations and self-reflection of her own experiences are accompanied by actionable advice and various exercises to be followed at your own pace. 

The 18 chapters cover a wealth of topics, such as how to find and develop ideas, how to build powerful narratives through sequencing, and the ins and outs of photography as a professional practice — from building your presence on social media to positioning your career towards the kind of photography you love doing.

De Middel’s practice is ultimately one of remarkable curiosity, playfulness and wonder. “One of the most interesting parts of photography,” she explains in chapter four as she heads out on an experimental shoot, “is that it has so many rules that it actually leaves the door open to breaking all of them one after the other and seeing what happens.”

De Middel is seen creating this image as she ventures into nearby jungle to experiment. Image © Cristina de Middel/Magnum Photos.

This is not an online course that lays down specific axioms or rules with regard to how to improve your practice, but a comprehensive guide on how to find and develop your own unique voice, how to communicate through photography and how to stay curious. “I don’t think photography is a job for me,” she states, “It is still a passion, and it is still a playground.” 

De Middel’s course, Stranger than Reality, is now available online, complete with 18 chapters, 10 workbooks, and over 15 exercises to be followed at your own pace, from anywhere in the world. Start learning today.

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