In 1964, a Zambian grade-school science teacher single-handedly, and unilaterally, created a space program for his country. The program involved rolling aspiring astronauts down a hill in a barrel and clipping their rope-swings at the height of their arc to simulate weightlessness. He claimed his country would not only beat both the Americans and Russians to the moon, but do it within the year.
Today, Spanish photographer Cristina De Middel‘s photo project, Afronauts, creates a fictional documentation of these efforts. The result is a fact-bending, visually striking fantasy that includes elephant-hugging astronauts, patterned space junk, weightless cats and an engineer day-dreaming at a rusted control panel.
"My intention is to drive the audience into reflection on what they consume as real," says De Middel. "In the beginning most people believed everything [in the photos] was real. People asked if I had been in Zambia in the '60s. They trusted the image but not me, which is quite funny."
The forgotten Zambian space program was the brainchild of Edward Makuka Nkoloso, a science teacher who dared to dream big. Following independence for the central African nation in 1964, Makuka Nkoloso founded the National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, Zambia's first (and completely unofficial) space academy.
As the self-appointed Director-General, Makuka Nkoloso announced in a 1964 op-ed, We're Going to Mars! With a Spacegirl, Two Cats and a Missionary, that the academy would win the space race by putting a person on the moon by 1965. He even insisted that if the Zambian government and citizenry had not been distracted by independence celebrations, they'd be there already.
The Zambian government never seriously considered Nkoloso's activities and let the program "die a natural death." After the United Nations turned down Nkoloso's funding request for $7 million, the program withered. Not surprising when you consider the training regime as described by Nkoloso:
"I'm getting them acclimatised to space-travel by placing them in my space-capsule every day. It's a 40-gallon oil drum in which they sit, and I then roll them down a hill."
Recruits also braved rope-swings. As they neared the arc of their highest swing, Nkoloso cut the rope in an attempt to replicate temporary weightlessness.
As deluded as he and his wannabe spacemen were, one can't help but admire the sheer audacity and ambition of Nkoloso. His story inspires a reevaluation of the line between possibility and dreams, and De Middel is his acolyte in the way she conflates invention and truth.
"Afronauts is the documentation of an impossible dream that only lives in the pictures," says De Middel, "I rebuilt documents adapting them to my personal imagery."
De Middel actually made the pictures far and wide; in her hometown of Alicante and on the outskirts of Madrid, as well as in Senegal and at the Dead Sea. "I just need the picture to look African and Spain is perfect for that," says De Middel. She and her grandmother stitched the spacesuit in the photos.
While it may be easy to mock Nkoloso's antics, it would be wrong to assume De Middel is poking fun at him. To the contrary, she hopes her work will nuance how audiences engage with foreign and, dare we say it, alien, images.
"The images are beautiful and the story is pleasant at a first level, but it is built on the fact that nobody believes that Africa will ever reach the moon. It hides a very subtle critique to our position towards the whole continent and our prejudices. It's just like saying strong words with a beautiful smile."
De Middel's photographs are often opening gambits in a game with her audience. She either tackles true stories that are unbelievable or she constructs big lies that everybody believes. Afronauts is a case of the former. Her make-believe portraits of spam mail senders a case of the latter.
"In both bodies of work there is truth and fiction, but on opposite sides. The game works when there is a balance between the two," she says.
In particular, this work tampers with conservative expectations of photography. An audience is quicker to suspend disbelief with the moving image more readily than with photography.
"When you go to the cinema and watch a movie you just don't get mad at the director because he's pretending that alien buried capsules are going to put an end to this civilization. Everything is set up to look real because it has to look real. When you watch a movie you just enjoy the story and the way it is told. That does not happen with photography," says De Middel. "Just imagine how movies like Blade Runner or In the mood for love would look as a series of photographs!"
"Photography has this particular status that makes her advance slower than other disciplines of art in terms of language. Most of the time photography must be either documentary or arty, and I just think there's a huge potential in using the photographic image as a single word in a narration. Somehow we get afraid or respectful when we have to use photography to tell a story."
De Middel, who has diversified from news photojournalism into fine art, is always attracted to photography that avoids the usual documentary subjects and stories told in the same old ways, so it is no coincidence Afronauts has the look of b-movie film set.
"My way of producing Afronauts has a lot of similarities with a low cost movie production. The costumes, the atrezzo, the casting and the locations are accurate as long as they are good tools to tell the story and to make it accessible for the audience. That was for me the funniest part of it, because I could get rid of all the documentary modus operandi," says De Middel.
Comic strips and not TV make up her visual vocabulary and "tacky movies from the sixties" such as Barbarella, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, and The Incredible Shrinking Man are considerable influences. She also adores the way the Star Wars‘ saga is shrouded in legend.
As much as Afronauts is a close encounter with De Middel's playful imagination, it is a serious challenge to audience viewing habits. Her images are a game of decryption.
"I feel very satisfied with the series being hard to classify," says de Middel. "That's the game I propose after all."
All images: Cristina De Middel