28 May 2022

Gideon Mendel: Capturing portraits of a drowning world

From Saturday Morning, 5:07 pm on 28 May 2022

During his 35-year career, South African-born photographer Gideon Mendel has travelled the globe documenting the impact of disease, flood and fire on communities. Mendel began in the 1980s, photographing life under apartheid and then turned his lens on the impact of AIDS in Africa for 12 years. 

Since 2007 Mendel's focus has often been climate change, capturing the devastating effects of flooding around the world and, most recently, photographing people returning home after wildfires in New South Wales and on the island of Evia in Greece.

Mendel’s flood photos are of real people, in real situations.

"Every flood is different," Mendel said. "It's always a different challenge finding people and making these images."

There is a stillness to the images that has an emotional impact on the viewer.

"It's sort of disquieting in that people are gazing right at the camera. They're quite conventional portraits of people engaging the camera but the circumstances are extraordinary.

"There's a kind of peculiar calmness to them."

Gideon Mendel

Photo: Jonathan Pierredon

Mendel is capturing the moments when the floods peak, and create a strange kind of almost-beauty.

"Some people have often described the experience of having their homes flooded as being almost in a weird dream-like state. You have reflections inside your living room. It's a very peculiar scenario."

"The nightmare, the horror of it often begins after the water goes. ... While the water's there, it's often strangely beautiful."

Mendel said everyone reacts differently when he wants to photograph them. Not everyone agrees, but many are open to the idea.

"I think people actually appreciate having what's happened to them being witnessed."

His subjects are often obviously upset, he admits.

"There's often a lot of blame and anger. Many, many of them certainly see themselves as being victims of climate change."

Francisca Chagas dos Santos
, Brazil,
 March 2015

Francisca Chagas dos Santos
, Brazil,
 March 2015 Photo:

Since he started in 2007, the discourse over climate change has evolved, he said. He had young children at the time, and he tried to imagine what the world might be like when they were older.

"At that point - I think this has changed, but at that point there was a real lack of images which showed the human dimension.

"I wanted to produce something which was visceral, where the victims of climate change were directly engaging the viewer."

He said he wanted to present his subjects as "empowered and powerful," and not just victims.

A lot of his work has been used in collaboration with climate activists such as Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion, he said.

"I'm very proud that it's been a part of climate activism, and I do consider myself a climate activist."

With the portrait photos, Mendel hopes that he is raising awareness in a new way.

"We are all vulnerable to climate change, and this is something that I am hoping to get across."

Submerged Portraits features in the Auckland Festival of Photography, and is showing on the Queen’s Wharf fence until June 27. Accompanying video work The Water Chapters is screening outside Auckland Central Library between 12-7pm until June 12.