Gideon Mendel Damage: A Testament of Faded Memory
These images emerge from a time of hope, activism and tragedy. In the 1980s I was part of a young generation of ‘struggle photographers’ in South Africa, documenting the fight against apartheid.
In 1990 I left a box of my outtakes (negatives and transparencies) in storage in Johannesburg, and subsequently forget about them. A few years ago they were returned to me and I discovered that at some point in their many years of neglect, the box had been rained on, and the top layers had been affected by both moisture and mould.
I found that this process of decay revealed something potent and significant. Could the entropy of these negatives reflect ways in which communal memory of these pivotal events along with the idealism of that period is fading?
I was struck by the fact that the interventions that overlay my original photographs are happenstance, completely random impacts of time and water. The images still carry the power of those remarkable scenes I documented all those years ago, yet their corruption and damage seem to magnify that energy. My only action was in choosing to expand the frame into the negative rebate, reconsidering what might be included or left out of the final image.
At the start of my lifelong photographic journey I experienced many intense and traumatic events, but chose not to take the time to ‘process’ them psychologically. Like these negatives, I left them packed away. So this engagement with a distorted and clouded version of my memory reflects an intensely personal reconnection with my history. On a contemporary political and global level it also serves as a reminder that in moments that may seem bleak and hopeless on all fronts, things can change in ways that surprise us.
Hope and tragedy seem so closely intertwined in my recollections of this period. It was a moment where the hegemony and power of the apartheid state seemed insurmountable in all its brutality, yet in response there was such heroic idealism within the township mobilisation that I witnessed.
I feel that the actual negatives are now striking physical objects, their distortion speaking to a deeper truth beyond their original documentary format. I am presenting them here as testaments to faded memories of hope and struggle, reconsidered and reframed in all their historical materiality.
About the author
1959, South Africa
London, United Kingdom
Gideon Mendel’s intimate style of image-making and long-term commitment to socially engaged 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. It was his work as a “struggle photographer” during this period that first brought his work to global attention.
In the early 1990s, he moved to London, continuing to respond to global social issues, with a major focus on HIV/AIDS, particularly in Africa but expanding worldwide during the last twenty years. The concluding chapter, Through Positive Eyes, is a collaborative project where Mendel’s role shifts from photographer to enabler, passing the camera to HIV-positive people.
Mendel has worked for many leading magazines, including National Geographic, Geo, and The Guardian Weekend Magazine. His first book, A Broken Landscape: HIV & AIDS in Africa, was published in 2001. Since then he has produced a number of photographic advocacy projects, working with prominent NGOs, including The Global Fund, Médecins Sans Frontières, UNICEF, Christian Aid, and Concern Worldwide.
Mendel’s earliest work from South Africa was highlighted in the Rise and Fall of Apartheid touring exhibition, curated by Okwui Enwezor. His recent project, entitled Dzhangal, an ‘anti-photographic’ response to the global refugee crisis was shown at Autograph in London and the book is published by GOSTBooks.
Since 2007, Mendel has been working on Drowning World, his long-term art and advocacy project about flooding that is a personal response to climate change. Solo shows of Drowning World have been shown at many galleries and public institutions around the world, and at Les Recontres de la Photographie in Arles.
Mendel has won the Eugene Smith Award for Humanistic Photography, six World Press Photo Awards and the Amnesty International Media Award for Photojournalism among others. He was shortlisted for the Prix Pictet in 2015 and the following year received the Pollock-Krasner Foundation’s “Pollock Prize for Creativity” and the Jury Prize for the Greenpeace Photo Award.
Joana Choumali, Ça va aller, 2016-2019
Shahidul Alam, Still She Smiles, 2014
Margaret Courtney-Clarke, Cry Sadness into the Coming Rain, 2014 - 2018
Rena Effendi, Transylvania: Built on Grass, 2012
Lucas Foglia, Human Nature, 2006 – 2019
Janelle Lynch, Another Way of Looking at Love, 2015-2018
Gideon Mendel, A Testament of Faded Memory, 2016
Ross McDonnell, Limbs, 2012
Ivor Prickett, End of the Caliphate, 2016 - 2018
Robin Rhode, Principle of Hope, 2017
Awoiska van der Molen, Am schwarzen Himmelsrund, 2010-2018
Alexia Webster, Street Studios, 2011-2018