Welcome to Confluences, a weekly column on art, kinship and life. Each week we approach one of the themes of the magazine’s current print issue by looking at a creative event, endeavour, or body of work that links to that theme and taps into a larger conversation with the world around us.
“I wanted to find a way of talking about climate change which was confrontational but different to the conventional photojournalistic response,” explains the London-based South African photographer Gideon Mendel about his long-term photographic project of documenting climate events - compiled now in an open-air exhibition, Fire/Flood, on at London’s Soho Photography Quarter. “I wanted to work in the space of activism and visual advocacy, and I wanted people to be looking climate change directly in the eye."
In the aftermath of severe flooding in Doncaster, England, in 2007, Mendel began photographing individuals affected by the floods standing, literally, in the water. These visually arresting images form the initial basis of what has since developed into a comprehensive body of work which encompasses two primary series: Drowning World and Burning World. The former features his flood portraits, which he has now undertaken in over 13 countries - most recently in Bayelsa State, Nigeria, and in Sindh Province, Pakistan, two regions which have in the past year suffered unprecedented rain levels and subsequently experienced flooding that rendered millions of people without homes.
These images don’t always follow the initial portrait setup from Doncaster; in one sub-series, Watermarks, he photographs water-damaged family photos that he has found on location whilst shooting in places as wide-ranging as India, Germany, and the United States: demonstrating in simultaneously a visceral and metaphorical sense the impact of such climate events on life and memory. Meanwhile, Burning World sees Mendel responding to wildfires globally: not documenting the fires themselves, but instead - as he does with floods - photographing their aftermath, both environmental and human.
When we talk about our current theme, rights, a few things come to mind: the right to a livable environment, the right to a home and livelihood intact and unmarred by climate collapse. But I’m also thinking about the right to an amplified voice and a dignified portrayal - in other words, the right to participate in telling one’s own story and be painted as a three-dimensional person rather than solely as a victim. This is something that is often denied to the subjects of post-disaster imagery, who are often already under-resourced and under-represented. I have long admired Mendel for his attention to the importance of commitment and integrity in his photography - even, or especially, in the face of an acute crisis or event, his work is characterised by an understanding of the importance of building long-term relationships and telling long-term stories: often spending long periods of time in a location, or returning again and again. There’s no reactive, whistle-stop coverage to be found. And indeed, the images that make up Fire/Flood are marked by the photographer’s deep sense of respect for his subjects, whom he rightfully views as collaborators and whose autonomy and dignity he works to preserve. As Mendel explains: “My subjects have taken the time - in a situation of great distress - to engage the camera, looking out at us from their inundated homes and devastated surroundings. They are showing the world the calamity that has befallen them. They are not victims in this exchange: the camera records their dignity and resilience. They bear witness to the brutal reality that the poorest people on the planet almost always suffer the most from climate change.”
Mendel’s impetus in starting the project, he recalls, was thinking about the future that his then-young children would inherit. How would their lives and rights be impacted by climate change in a decade, two decades, or longer? I’m reminded of Tallulah Brennan’s words in Issue #13’s Children of the Anthropocene: “As it becomes clearer that there is ‘no credible path’ to stay within 1.5 degrees of warming - the point when climate change becomes unmanageable - this anxiety over children is becoming more common,” she says. “Since children are the essence of our future, the mirror that we hold up to ourselves and what we want to create and put out into the world, then of course they should be at the forefront of all our thoughts and actions.”
But, as Brennan points out, this anxiety all too often leads down dangerous paths, such as that of eco-fascism: the ethnonationalistic belief that multiculturalism, immigration, or overpopulation are to blame for climate collapse. Rather than debating the ethical merit of bringing children into a world in ecological crisis, she suggests, perhaps it is “time we focused on creating a loving society and shifting our attitudes on care.” And it’s in this suggestion that I see Mendel’s photographs fitting in: offering an example of how the destructive impacts of climate change on individuals and communities may be documented without fear-mongering or scapegoating, but rather in the respectful, empathetic, participatory manner that all people deserve.
Confluences: On Gideon Mendel