Zambia goes to Mars

Star City

A space suit with tribal markings, a tame elephant, a mummified alien, a barren moonscape flecked with grass... As though ticking off a shopping list, the photographer Cristina de Middel collected the graphic elements she needed for her new project: in the 1960s, at the height of the Space Race, what did the superpowers think of Zambia's Space program?

AFRONAUTAS re-imagines the true story of Zambia's attempt to land twelve people (and ten cats) on Mars. This was the dream of Edward Makuka, a high school teacher who became the Director-General of the (unofficial) Zambia National Academy of Space Research. In the early 1960s, Makuka wanted to make his freshly-independent African country the greatest power in Space, surpassing the U.S. and the Soviet Union. To achieve his ambitions, he created a makeshift training centre about eleven miles from Lusaka, where trainee astronauts were placed in large oil drums and rolled down a hill to help them experience weightlessness. Sadly, the mission was indefinitely delayed due to a lack of funding (the $7 million Makuka requested from the United Nations never arrived), and when one of his astronauts, a 17-year-old girl, became unexpectedly pregnant, the mission was abandoned for good.

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De Middel, a photojournalist with a background in art, deconstructs the mission that could have happened. With a small production budget, but used to such challenges, the Spanish photographer has pushed documentary work up against the limits of the truth, bringing imagination and interpretation into play.

Taking hold of the narrative language of film, along with cinematic tricks for reconstructing realities, de Middel references B-movies, Flash Gordon and Godzilla as she develops the retro atmosphere of the 1960s space race. "I have always been a big fan of Tintin," she says, "and the comic of his trip to the Congo really helped me find inspiration for creating clichés about Africans."

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One of her objectives was to provide a more diverse view of Africa, something deviating from the recurring topics. Having worked for ten years as a photojournalist on a daily newspaper, this goal feels like the natural reaction of a photographer to the status quo in journalism, which she has recently called into question. "I wanted to learn and to see where the limit lay in the recreation of images ... and I wanted to have fun, which is also very important!

Cristina de Middel

Currently based in London as a freelance photographer. De Middel's personal and professional work for newspapers and NGOs has been recognized by the National Photojournalism Prize Juan Cancelo (2009), Fnac Photographic Talent (2009) and the Humble Arts Women in Photography Project Grant (2011). She has an MA in fine arts from University of Valencia, Spain (2001), an MA in photography from University of Oklahoma (2000) and a postgraduate degree in photojournalism from Universitat Politécnica de Barcelona, Spain (2002).

See the full photo essay on the Lab