Gideon Mendel Drowning World
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 author
1959, South Africa
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.
Valérie Belin, Still Life, 2014
Ilit Azoulay, Imaginary Order, 2012-2014
Matthew Brandt, Honeybees, 2009-2012
Maxim Dondyuk, Culture of the Confrontation, 2014
Alixandra Fazzina, A Million Shillings – Escape from Somalia, 2008
Ori Gersht, Blow Up, 2009
John Gossage, Should Nature Change, 2010-2014
Pieter Hugo, Permanent Error, 2009-2010
Gideon Mendel, Drowning World, 2008-2014
Sophie Ristelhueber, Eleven Blowups, 2006
Brent Stirton, A Violation of Eden, 2007-2014
Yang Yongliang, Artificial Wonderland, 2014