Review: The Afronauts by Cristina De Middel


Book Reviews, Photobooks




In 1964, newly independent Zambia started competing with the US and the Soviet Union, to win the race to the moon. Mind you, this was not an official idea. Instead, Makuka Nkoloso, a school teacher, had retired from his job to start Zambia’s space agency, and to put an assortment of people (and a cat) into space. For reasons that are not very hard to understand things didn’t quite pan out. Nkoloso never got to launch his rocket. Photographer Cristina De Middel’s The Afronauts now visually re-created the program. (more)

I had seen photographs from the project on the internet, but I thought that they were just a tad too cute. But then I came across the book, and that made all the difference. The Afronauts, self-published by De Middel, really makes the project come alive. I suppose there are all kinds of aspects at play here. For a start, the selection of photographs I saw online only contained the images that would work well online, an environment that is not necessarily known for its long attention span. The book, in contrast, fleshes out the project with a large variety of photographs, creating a narrative, with quiet images and flashier ones intermixed. What is more, The Afronauts comes with additional material, ephemera (that might or might not be real), such as typed letters and reproductions of vintage photographs.

The book thus engages the viewer in a variety of rather subtle ways, and it manages to create the little world that I found lacking just seeing the “highlights” online. I suppose there are all kinds of conclusions we could draw from this. But first and foremost, The Afronauts, the book, is a prime example of what photobooks can achieve when they’re done smartly and with attention to detail. It’s easily one of the best photobooks I’ve come across this year, and I’m especially pleased to see that it’s self-published1. This doesn’t mean that I think that self-publishing is better in any way (there are obvious advantages and disadvantages). But The Afronauts shows that self-publishing can reach the very highest level of publishing. A completely unpretentious production, simple yet elegant, the book is an absolute must-have for anyone interested in the contemporary photobook: Very highly recommended2.

The Afronauts, photographs by Cristina De Middel, text by Kojo Ngue, self-published, 2012

1 To be precise here, I’m assuming it’s self-published. There is no publisher listed in the book. Instead, it says the book was produced on the occasion of an exhibition in Spain.

2 My quest to find information online where to buy the book were not all that successful. I bought the book at Dashwood Books - provided they still have copies I’m sure you can order one there.