Gideon Mendel navigates the fine line between photographer and activist. That is, since he started his career in South Africa in the 1980’s, documenting the State’s violence against the peaceful protests that marked the end of the Apartheid. This archives, he recently revisited them in a book published by GOST. He then moved to the UK and immersed himself in a 20-year project documenting the impact of AIDS and HIV, aiming to demolish the stigma surrounding it. A part of this work – a collaborative photo-storytelling project by 130 people living with HIV and AIDS around the world – was also recently published, by Aperture.
An undoubtedly engaged photographer, Mendel has decided to devote the rest of his career to climate change. “I’m 60 and won’t live another 10 years of working. I want to dedicate it working on climate change. My thinking over this time is that I will work my way to addressing the 4 elements – water, fire, earth, air”, he says. In 2007, he started with water when two massive flood – one the UK and one in India – hit within weeks of each other. He rushed there, arrived each time when the water was still high and photographed people whose lives had been devastated by the water. “I brought an old Rollleiflex with me and immediately got a strong response. I very quickly got a sense of how portraits in water could express vulnerability because there was something shared”, he explains.
Shedding light on the people at the heart of the crisis
Standing in the water in front of their house, people look directly at the camera. We know from the point of view that Mendel too has his waists submerged while shooting. Invading half of the frame, the straight water line somehow homogenizes the landscapes. The apparatus is that of classic posed portrait. Yet, the gazes express everything but neutrality. There are subtle differences in people’s expression – some of them seem more surprised and shocked by what’s happened to their lives, others express a sense of familiarity with the water. Or is it resignation? The stillness of both the characters and the water conveys a feeling of acceptance.
For 10 years, Mendel travelled the world to flooded areas, documenting in more than 19 trips the ravages of extreme weather in a series that emphasize the human aspect of climate change. Some photographers decide to cover the melting of glaciers, Mendel rather decided to document the people at the heart of the global crisis. He calls his series a “visual alarm call”, and being public domain now, it has been appropriated by various campaigning organizations fighting climate change. “My work on climate change exists in three different and complementary areas: in the media worldwide; in museums and galleries in the form of photos and videos; and it’s used for climate change advocacy in protests”, Mendel explains. At some occasions, he accompanies his portraits with testimonies. “It was one terrible experience, but it brought the community together”, an American victim of the flood is quoted. Implicitly do we get a sense that only together can we combat climate change.
Pushing the narratives further
The testimonies play a central role in Mendel’s latest work in Australia, in areas that were devastated by wild fires early this year. At first gaze, they evoke his Submerged Portraits – people looking engagingly at the camera while standing before their lost property. Yet, they are very different. “Shooting in California before and in Australia now, I realized and learned that the environment is very chaotic in the aftermath of a fire, which is different with flood, where the landscape is flat and clean”, he explains. “I had to work very hard to place the people within that environment. And when possible, I shot above them to show the landscape.”
He also made the conscious decision to not be on location during the fire. “I don’t want to be in an emergency situation but in the aftermath, before it was cleared away”, he says. On many pictures, touches of green appear, nature claiming life back, while houses remained irrevocably devastated. “It was dire for some people to see that contrast, to see nature revive when everything was so messed up for them”, he notes. In the place of cheerful living rooms, brand new kitchens and plentiful gardens stand darken pieces of stone and metal. “When I look around I see what’s not here”, an Australian woman says with a trembling voice. “I won’t do it again, I’m too old. It wouldn’t even look like whatever it looked like […] It just breaks my heart, that’s all. I’m not different from anyone else”, she later adds. “The narrative of environment disaster is generally set up in Africa or India, with black or brown people as victims. It’s interesting to bring in pictures of an environmental calamity happening to white people as well”, Mendel notes.
“The video component and testimonies will be important in this series”, Mendel explains. Like in his previous works, he also explores various layers of narratives, from abstract close-ups of damaged material to the hundred shades of green appearing in nature’s recovery and tintypes of found objects (in collaboration with Jonathan Pierredon). And with this series again, he affirms a disruptive visual language that increases awareness with a more troubling, uncomfortably intimate, approach.
By Laurence Cornet
The book GOST by Gideon Mendel