In the next century the world’s sea levels could rise by up to 20 feet. If that happens, coastlines and entire cities will be indelibly altered and, in extreme instances, entirely lost. Despite these dire predictions, our ability to imagine such catastrophe remains limited. However, in Gideon Mendel’s photographs these nightmares come brutally to life.
Mendel, who was born in South Africa in 1959, photographed his first flood in 2007, in the United Kingdom. Hoping to “capture the magnitude of climate change,” he’s said, he took portraits of flood survivors half-submerged in the water that upended their lives. Several weeks after Mendel completed that initial work, he traveled to India to document another disaster. He titled the series of photos “Drowning World.”
In the years since, equipped with an old Rolleiflex camera, Mendel has waded through water in Thailand, Nigeria, Germany, the Philippines, Brazil, and, most recently, the United States. For these efforts, he received the inaugural Pollock Prize for Creativity earlier this year, and the “Drowning World” portraits have appeared in various exhibitions, including the International Center of Photography’s 2013 triennial. Last year, the photos were prominently placed on billboards and bus stops around Paris in the build-up to the COP21 Climate Conference.
A show of these portraits, as well as a previously unseen body of new work related to photos Mendel discovered throughout his travels, titled “Watermarks,” is currently on view at the Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, in East Lansing, through October 16. For “Watermarks” Mendel has scanned found photographs, altered them slightly, and produced new prints, offering a touching, subtle accompaniment to his portraits.
Before “Drowning World,” Mendel worked as a photojournalist, cutting his teeth documenting the waning years of apartheid. In the 1990s Mendel went on to photograph people living with HIV in Africa and abroad. By pointing his lens where some prefer not to look, Mendel captures a strand of common humanity, creating work that intersects documentary, art, and activism.
In a conversation, condensed and lightly edited below, Mendel spoke a bit about navigating treacherous waters, taking on the dual roles of documentarian and artist, and how his recent “Watermarks” series came about.
Well, it’s changed now, but when I began, I felt there was a real problem with the image of climate change. At the time the image was so “white”—as in glacial landscapes and polar bears. It was very beautiful, but distant. I first thought of creating a typology of different types of victims of climate change, but when I began doing my submerged portraits I realized there was something very powerful about the flood.
Does climate change come up in conversation with your subjects?
Sometimes we talk about the issue—it depends very much on the situation. Often people don’t have a sense of what climate change is. In developed countries people often have very strong feelings either way. The nature of the connection with my subjects is a strange thing—it’s a visual connection and often non-verbal. During a flood, while the water level is still up, there’s not much you can do and your life at that point is suspended. You’ve got a million things to clean up, but while the water is there, you’re kind of powerless. That’s the moment when my intervention happens.
It’s interesting then to notice how peaceful your subjects often appear, considering their surrounding environments. Does this have something to do with your use of a Rolleiflex camera?
It does. There’s a theater to these old cameras which makes it feel special and different. Also because this camera is below eye-level, I’m able to be more connected and look at my subjects carefully. But don’t get me wrong, it’s also frustrating, expensive, and difficult. When I began maybe ten years ago, I could say I’d get a much better print if I used film, but now it’s not really the case. The weird thing is that technically, in terms of the output—making prints—there’s no longer a difference. I can make beautiful prints from digital photos.
How did you initially come up with your idea to salvage water-damaged photos and turn them into larger prints for your new “Watermarks” series?
It happened in 2008 when I was photographing the floods in Haiti. There’d been a devastating five hurricanes within a month and a river had burst its bank in the town of Gonaïves, killing about 2,000 people. I had my two Rolleiflex cameras, a 5D backup, and a pretty clumsy assistant. Once we’d arrived we met these amazing people who took us out to their home, which was about a 500-meter [roughly 1,640-feet] walk through the water. It began raining and the leather strap holding the Rolleiflex around my neck broke and fell in the water. And then an hour later, while we were doing a portrait in the woman’s house, my assistant turned around and knocked the tripod with the other Rolleiflex into the water.
Yeah, but the battery charger was also shorting so I couldn’t charge it. I just had to dry out the Rolleiflex as well as I could and keep on shooting. The cameras started rusting and stopped working, but I got two days of shots until they jammed on me. When I got my film back, most of the shots were pretty fucked. There was still water inside the camera, so I was getting different levels of humidity inside the lens which damaged the images to varying degrees.
So it was kind of a happy accident then?
Yeah, well shortly after Haiti I went to some floods in Australia and found a pile of photographs abandoned on the floor. I thought there was something really interesting about the impact of the water directly on the film so I began collecting these images over the years. I haven’t done much with them until now, but I’ve gathered about five or six hundred pictures that were either found or given to me.
How do you see these relating to your submerged portraits and broader feelings around photography?
I was recently running a collaborative photography workshop in the jungle camp for migrants in Calais [in France]. While I was there I had the realization that in that context photography was the enemy and even a collaborative photography project felt like the wrong thing to do. The whole experience left me feeling disillusioned. There are contexts where photography feels overdone and in that context, where there had been so many photographers going through, there was this sense of it being like a zoo. I felt like the last thing I wanted to do was photograph the place and people.
My response was to start collecting a whole lot of physical items around the camp. They were charged objects like tear-gas canisters, shoes, and playing cards. I left the camp with a whole load of them. I just felt like I needed to be doing something else. I’ve never made anything that’s non-photographic and that’s the challenge I’m facing. I feel like I want to make a sort of anti-photography statement.
Would you describe your “Watermarks” as such a statement?
Yeah, it’s definitely a continuation of that idea. I felt I needed to heighten their object-ness. This is the first time I’ll be exhibiting them and thinking through them. It breaks every rule I know. I can look at photos on a screen and know which will work well as a print. With these, it’s harder to tell. I’m interested in what they say about memory. It’s almost like a form of archeology, but missing the 1,000 years in the middle.