Wading into the reality of climate change— one portrait at a time

Photographer Gideon Mendel discusses his “Drowning World” series ahead of his upcoming talk at the Palo Alto Photo Forum

Ahmed. Khairpur Nathan Shah, Sindh; Pakistan. September 2010. (Courtesy of Gideon Mendel)

These days it can be difficult to determine which is more alarming—the increasingly frequent news each year of catastrophic weather-related events, or the denialist viewpoint that nothing unusual is happening in that regard.

It is a peculiar dynamic that seems worthy of the commonsense lessons of centuries-old children’s parables (if not standard for the launching point of modern dystopian cinema). In a world where truth is now more disputed than fiction, we have witnessed citizens dealing with their homes completely submerged in water, just months after they had voted for politicians touting climate change denialism. Strange days indeed.

Not long after this reality washed over us in the wake of Hurricane Katrina more than a decade ago, British photographer Gideon Mendel found himself wondering many years ahead to the world that his children will inherit. As an internationally-awarded photographer with field experience within impacted regions, Mendel sought to produce a series of images that would visualize the on-the-ground reality of climate change around the world. After years of work spanning numerous countries, the result is “Drowning World,” Mendel’s stirring portrait series of flood victims across the globe submerged in the waters that have engulfed their community.

We spoke with Mendell ahead of his upcoming presentation at the Palo Alto Photographer’s Forum to get some insight into his project and a view from the rising water line.

Francisca Chagas dos Santos. Taquari District, Rio Branco; Brazil. March 2015. (Courtesy of Gideon Mendel)

What was the initial impulse for your “Drowning World” project? When did you begin, and what motivated you to pursue it?

My first work on the project was in 2007, so it’s really been just over ten years that I’ve been working on it. It came about at a time when I had young children and I was thinking about their future and the lives they would be leading when they are my age. Around that time I was nearing 50 and I was wondering “when my children are 45, what will the world be like?” And I began thinking more about the threats of climate change.

So I researched the way climate change was being imaged. I knew I wanted to say something about climate change photographically, but I didn’t know how to approach it or what to do. So it took me a couple of years to find my way into it. One thing that really struck me at that point was how white all the imaging was, on every level—glaciers, polar bears, and arctic landscapes, but it all felt very far away and distanced. I was searching for something more visceral. I wanted to make something that was very direct and confrontational.

In 2007, there were floods in England which were really easy for me to travel to…and I kind of stumbled onto this idea of doing portraits of flood victims. Very shortly after that, like 6 weeks later, I was able to photograph major floods in India, so I kind of fused two different sides of the world. And it set me on this course.

Images from the “Floodlines” component of Mendel’s project, which he characterizes as “an abstracted investigation of the line of flood waters as it moves through private and public spaces.” (Courtesy of Gideon Mendel)

What’s the reality of doing the work and being on the ground in those disaster zone scenarios?

There is something very unique about a flood situation in that the water will come and people flee, but then they return. So I’m kind of waiting for that moment. What I never would want to do is try to make photos of someone who is busy fleeing the water. Often with flooding there is a space of days and even weeks when the water doesn’t pass. So it’s not a disaster zone in the sense that chaotic things are happening, but often it’s quite a still moment of disaster.

In France last week, we thought the water was going to go down, but by the end of the week it was rising again, and we were trying to find people going back into their homes [as the water recedes] so it is always a complicated and challenging process. Generally, I find people very open to be photographed, and having what has happened to them being witnessed. I’m not an NGO or a charity, so I can’t really offer them much help or even much support. But what I offer, I suppose, is a deep witnessing of what happened, and people around the world have responded very strongly to that.

What has been the biggest challenge for this project?

On one level, the logistics: finding the funds to do it, operating and working safely in those areas. And along the way there have been different accidents, like with cameras going under water. A particular example working in France last week, was working in freezing water, which has been really hard.

I think the challenge over the years has been to believe in it, ‘cause in many ways it is a mad idea. But it gradually has been getting a stronger and stronger response. As I’ve worked on the project, different kinds of themes and narratives have emerged organically. So I kind of know what I’m looking for now—I have a sense for the central narrative. The main spine of the series is what I call “Submerged Portraits,” and those are the portraits of flood victims engaging with the camera and out to the world. And they’re kind of unusual in the sense that the portraits themselves are quite conventional, but it is the context that is alarming.

Lucas Williams. Lawshe Plantation, South Carolina; USA. October 2015. (Courtesy of Gideon Mendel)

So with that said about how the project has evolved photographically, I’m curious about how your own viewpoints have changed in light of what you have seen while traveling to these different areas?

I suppose I have become more and more of an activist. As you know, with the horrendous stuff going on in America at the moment with the Trump administration’s view of climate change, it has made me so concerned about the future and quite desperate because it feels like so many opportunities have been missed. Even the very modest proposals of the Paris Climate Change Accords are probably not going to happen. What’s really needed to changed things seems so far away. And the sad thing is that most of the politicians and business people making these decisions aren’t going to be alive when the shit really hits the fan. It’s going to be our children’s lives that are going to be devastated.

What kind of response have you gotten here in the U.S. with your project?

When I was photographing the floods [in America], there were a lot of Trump supporters who I photographed. And I was really struck by one of them who said, “I love Donald Trump and nothing would persuade me to not vote for him. But he was really wrong about climate change.” You know…when the water is inside your house and everything is destroyed, it’s hard to be a denialist, isn’t it?

Florence Abraham. Igbogene, Bayelsa State; Nigeria. November 2012. (Courtesy of Gideon Mendel)

Is there a particular image within the series that is your favorite, or perhaps one that best embodies the overall purpose of the project?

I think my favorite image is the one I made of Florence Abramham in Nigeria in 2012. That’s the one I feel tells the story the most strongly. And she was just quite an amazing person who struck me very deeply.

In Nigeria when those floods happened they were huge—they covered about an 8th of the country, destroyed about 100,000 homes, killed about 500 people. And they were hardly covered internationally, occurring at about the same time as Hurricane Sandy, which got so much coverage because of all the media based in New York.

As I often do, I focused on one community, which was this small place called Igbogene where the really poorest people lived in a kind of mud and wood houses, and there was nothing left of their homes to photograph because they were gone completely. In a relative context it was the more middle class people who I photographed, who had brick homes. Florence was a baker who had a bakery, she employed about 20 people, and there was another 20 people who made their livings from transporting and selling her bread around the state. And she took me in to show how everything had been destroyed—her ovens and supplies. She had lost everything with no insurance. I took her photograph, and I had an arrangement in Nigeria on the advice of my local fixer to give everyone a set fee of $25 for their time in exchange for being photographed and showing me their homes. And I tried to give Florence the $25 and she wouldn’t take it. She said, “I don’t want your money. I want you to show the world what has happened to me.” She was a very proud and powerful person.

So where do you find yourself now ten years into this project? Is there any place for optimism?

I’m constantly struck by the amazing kind of community bonds that emerge with flooding and the way that people help and support each other.

On the more challenging side of things, I do think that images can be powerful things — even in this age where there is a lot of cynicism about photography — and change things in the world. So I do feel that there is a point to what I’m doing.

Gideon Mendel will participate in the Palo Alto Photography Forum’s lecture series on Friday, February 9th. For more information, click here.

More of Gideon Mendel’s work can be seen on his Instagram feed @gideonmendel or at www.gideonmendel.com

Charles Russo

Award-winning writer and photographer with extensive experience across mediums, including videography, investigative reporting, editing, advanced research, and a wide range of photography.

Author of Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America; represented by Levine Greenberg Rostan Agency.

Freelance clients include Google, VICE and Stanford University.

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