Cristina de Middel's Little Red Book

The Spanish photographer reworks Mao's bible of communism for a new generation of Chinese

Cristina de Middel’s publication of Afronauts in 2012 changed the game of photobook self-publishing. A hugely successful book that staged tableaux of assorted imagery and documents related to the failed Zambian space programme, it created a new synthesis of photography and fiction within the documentary tradition, pointing out the inefficiencies between what we hold to be truth and what the medium of photography purports to examine. 

With her new work, Party, de Middel re-examines the Bible of Chinese communism, Mao Tse-Tsung’s Little Red Book, a collection of quotations from the Communist Party leader. By erasing parts of the quotations and adding photographs from her travels in China, de Middel negates the language of the book and challenges the notion of text and image. Here she shares exclusive pictures from Party and talks about the challenges of shooting in China. 

Dazed Digital: How does the re-working of text change the context of of Mao’s writings for you? Lines like 'nooses around necks of the people' and  'tigers are really powerful' suggest at once a bleak outlook and playful absurdity.

Cristina de Middel: The idea is to play with the idea of the word 'party'. Basically, the Chinese idea of the Communist Party today is somewhat a fallacy. Communist China is a joke in our present day, both economically and ideologically. What happens with most sacred texts is that people make their own interpretations based on their needs, which is what I did with the book for my own relationship with China, playing with this obtuse language. Party is profound for me in the sense that it is sort of a private personal diary, but there is a descriptive process of the absurdity and conflict of current China and also the personal reflections I had while there. I was under a lot of pressure both personally and professionally and I went to China as a sort of working escape. The book is a result of my time shooting images there. 

DD: The photographs in Party seem much less staged than those in Afronauts, which revolves around a fictitious narrative of the Zambian space programme. Was the method of preparation for these images quite different? 

Cristina de Middel: The process is completely different, although I started the project before Afronauts. In China I did not need to stage things as much as China itself is sort of a large stage to work on. So I worked the way I had done with my previous work, which was street photography. I was reacting to things I did not understand and looking for images of metaphor, and found symbolism in daily Chinese life that could be interpreted on several levels, both personally and professionally.

DD: Can you single out a particular experience while shooting in China that brought into question your own idea of the country or challenged your working methods?

Cristina de Middel: It is challenging for someone who does not speak the language. You have no idea what people are saying, even with handlers. It’s the way they communicate which makes it a very solitary and foreign experience, which is what I was looking for – it did not create a problem for shooting per se. I use the universal language of the smile and that generally opens doors. 

I was staying with a Chinese family and the family could not speak English. For some reason the woman of the house every night would bring me a glass of boiling water at midnight every night. I mean I’m still not sure what it means, so I just smiled and said 'xie xie', which means 'thank you' and was about the only words I had.

DD: Have you sent the book to anybody in China to look at? Do you have plans to?

Cristina de Middel: I collaborate with a magazine in Shanghai regularly and they keep asking me for new projects, but honestly it was not ready at that point and also I am not sure it’s a good idea. But my fixer in China loves it – I kept asking if I would have problems, but he seems confident that people will not pay attention. I have the feeling the Mao book is respected more in the west, oddly. I couldn’t even find the Little Red Book at bookstores in China, except at tourist shops. I asked several people if they had any religious beliefs, and the family I stayed with actually had a bit of a laugh and pointed to their younger daughter, saying, 'Yeah, she’s a Communist.' I might be completely wrong, but it seems somehow outdated for many of the people there.

DD: Do you feel that you could do another series in China, or has this been the experience that you were looking for?

Cristina de Middel: I have a lot of material from China, but for the moment I think I have said everything I have to say. But who knows, maybe I (will) decide to become a Communist and reinvent my photos to adapt the images as a pro-Mao doctrine.

Cristina De Middel’s Party is out now