Drowning World, Gideon Mendel's photography

Gideon Mendel Drowning World

Shirley Armitage in her flooded home in Moorland, Somerset. She had left her home when there was an inch of water, and returning to find the water level so high was an immensely shocking experience for her. At the start of 2014 the UK experienced the wettest winter since records began. At least 6000 properties were flooded, and large areas remained submerged for a number of weeks. 
Moorland Village, Somerset, United Kingdom; February 2014.

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere. The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
W. B. Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’

Christa and Salomon Raymond Fils inside their flooded home in Decade in southeast Haiti. Hurricane Gustave had damaged and flooded their home destroying all their possessions. In 2008 four hurricanes battered Haiti in quick succession (Hannah, Gustav, Ike and Fay) killing more than 800 people and causing extensive damage. The country is particularly vulnerable to flooding because the hillsides have been deforested for charcoal production. Decade Village, Haiti, 2008.

Untilted, from series Drowning World.

Chinta Davi and her daughter Samundri Davi after an excursion to buy cooking oil. This is in the village of Salempur near Muzaffarpur which is totally flooded forcing its residents to move between houses by boat or wade through chest high water. Most had to flee the floodwaters which destroyed their homes to seek safety on the higher ground of a road embankment. At least two million people in the province of Bihar now live outdoors as a result of the extreme monsoon flooding which has submerged thousands of villages and huge swathes of farmland in northern India, Bangladesh and Nepal. In Bihar alone more than 515 people have perished and more than 16 million people in 7,972 villages have been affected. These floods- the worst in living memory, were caused by the sort of extreme weather that scientists have predicted will happen as a result of global warming.Village Bihar, India, August 2007.

Untilted, from series Drowning World.

Untilted, from series Drowning World.

Untitled, from series Drowning World.

Jameela Khan, Bemina, Srinagar, Kashmir, India, October 2014.

Suparat Taddee, Chumchon Ruamjai Community, Bangkok, Thailand, November 2011.

A boy pauses for a moment as works on cleaning the mud out of his flooded home in the city of Gonaives, two weeks after it was flooded during Hurricanes Ike and Hanna. At this point much of the water, which had covered most houses in the town, had receded leaving the town struggling to deal with the remaining residue of thick stinking mud. Hundreds of people are said to have died as the La Quinte river burst its banks and engulfed the city. During the hurricane season of 2008 Haiti was subjected to four powerful hurricanes in the space of twenty days. This increasing severity and quantity of hurricanes is one of the effects of climate change, which scientists have been predicting. But Haiti is extremely vulnerable to these extreme climatic events due to the deforestation of its hillsides. Haiti, September 2008.

Untitled, from series Drowning World.

Artist's Statement

As global warming drives an increasing number of extreme weather events Yeats’s message resonates strongly for me and I have been drawn to photograph in flooded landscapes around the world.

Drowning World is my long-term project – an attempt to explore the effects of climate change in an intimate way, and I have over the years made a series of what I call Submerged Portraits. In each of these the pose is conventional and while and the flooded environment of my subjects is chaotic and disconcertingly altered I try to make the moment of the portrait calm and connected. In this landscape where life is turned upside down and normality is suspended my intention is for their unsettling gaze to challenge the viewer.

Drowning World began in 2007 when I photographed two floods that occurred within weeks of each other, one in the UK and the other in India. I was deeply struck by the contrasting impacts of these floods, along with the shared vulnerability that seemed to unite their victims.

Since then I have endeavoured to visit flood zones around the world, travelling to Haiti, Pakistan, Australia, Thailand, Nigeria, Germany, The Philippines, Brazil and returning again to the UK and India in 2014, in search of these commonalities and differences. Exploring these environments evokes many questions for me about our sense of stability in a disorderly world.

I choose to shoot on medium format film, using old Rolleiflex cameras. Although this is expensive and difficult to do while working under the most challenging of circumstances, I believe that it gives the images a distinctive quality and also necessitates a formal rigour in my approach.

This journey has led to further, related, bodies of work: Flood Lines documents the impact of floodwaters on interior landscapes and surfaces. Along the way I have also rescued a variety of flood damaged personal snapshots, some anonymous and some linked to specific families. The impact of the floodwaters on the chemistry of these prints creates a random and strangely disruptive effect. I have called this series Water Marks. A series of video pieces, The Water Chapters, has also grown organically from this process. My hope is to eventually make a major multi-screen installation where a grid of screens will create a global view of climate change.

The image of the flood is an ancient metaphor found within many cultures representing an overwhelming, destructive force. As the project has developed, the ‘conversation’ created by juxtaposing images from different floods in different countries at different times, side-by-side has become more interesting. The lives and fates of these individuals become clearly linked and they stand in solidarity amidst a deepening visual complexity.

About the photographer


1959, South Africa


South African

Based in

London, United Kingdom

Gideon Mendel is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading contemporary photographers. His intimate style of committed image making, and long-term commitment to projects has earned him international acclaim. Born in Johannesburg in 1959, he studied Psychology and African History at the University of Cape Town. He began photographing in the 1980s during the final years of apartheid. His work as a ‘struggle photographer’ at this time first brought his work global attention.

In 1990 he moved to London, from where he has continued to respond to social issues globally. One of the major focuses of his work soon became the issue of HIV/AIDS. This journey began in Africa and has expanded to many parts of the world over the last twenty years. The concluding and ongoing chapter, Through Positive Eyes, is a collaborative project in which Mendel’s role has shifted from photographer to enabler, handing the camera over to HIV positive people.

Since 2007, Mendel has been working on Drowning World, an art and advocacy project about flooding that is his personal response to climate change. This work has drawn particular attention for its unusual use of portraiture within chaotic flooded scenarios, as well as its combination of photography with video.

Mendel has worked for many of the world’s leading magazines including National Geographic, Fortune, Condé Naste Traveller, Geo, The Independent, The Guardian Weekend, Stern and Rolling Stone.

His first book, A Broken Landscape: HIV & AIDS in Africa was published in 2001. Since then he has produced a number of photographic projects, working with campaigning organizations including The Global Fund, Médecins Sans Frontières, Treatment Action Campaign, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, Action Aid, the Terrene Higgins Trust, Shelter, UNICEF and Concern Worldwide.

Mendel has won the Eugene Smith Award for Humanistic Photography, six World Press Photo Awards, first prize in the American Pictures of the Year competition, a POY Canon Photo Essayist Award and the Amnesty International Media Award for Photojournalism.

His work is increasingly seen in a variety of gallery contexts, with some of his earliest work from South Africa included in the Rise and Fall of Apartheid touring exhibition. Drowning World has featured prominently at the ICP Triennial and Picture Windows installations in New York, as well as in numerous other public installations and private galleries ranging from the Freer/Sackler Museum in Washington to Gallery Momo in Johannesburg to Somerset House and Tiwani Contemporary in London.