Gideon Mendel is a critically acclaimed photographer who across 30 years has transformed his photojournalism into art into activism. Born in Johannesburg in 1959, Mendel began his career during the struggle against apartheid, and then moved to London to devote himself to capturing the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Since 2007, Mendel has been working on the series Drowning World, his personal response to climate change.
For his work, he has received several major awards, including the Pollock Prize for Creativity, the Amnesty International Media Award for Photojournalism and six World Press Photo Awards.
Mendel spoke to DW about his decade-long project as images from Drowning World go on display at Extreme. Environments, an exhibition that has just opened at the Fotografie Forum Frankfurt and is part of Frankfurt’s photo triennial, RAY 2018.
DW: How would you describe your approach to the medium of photography?
Gideon Mendel: I have seen photography as a medium that can act in the world. I have always tied my photography to my concerns about the world. I have attempted to address some of the major social and political issues of my generation. I came of age working as a photographer in South Africa during the final years of apartheid. I was part of a young generation of so-called “struggle photographers” responding to that struggle against apartheid. A huge amount of my career was taken up with responding to issues around HIV and AIDS, particularly in Africa and the fight for treatment. Drowning World is my attempt to talk about climate change and global warming.
Was the trigger for this photo series?
The idea emerged slowly for me, at a time when I had young children. I was trying to imagine the world they would live in when they were my age. So I began to research climate change and global warming. I felt that the imaging and the way it was seen was very limited and very distancing. There were lots of images of white glaciers and polar bears, and I wanted to make something that was very visceral and would strike people right between the eyes. My intention was to make work which would have an impact. And when you want to have an impact, you need to be open to different ways of doing that.
The initial impact was to make portraits of people engaging with the camera directly in flood water — and the gaze, their way of looking in the camera, was crucial. So I began the series “Submerged Portraits,” and at the time, different kinds of narratives emerged; I then started a series called “Floodlines,” in which I followed the traces of floods in public and personal places. Later came the flood damaged personal snapshots, “Watermarks.”
The development of the project has coincided with my own development as a filmmaker. My videos filmed in the flooded areas are called “Water Chapters.”
You have also been criticized for staging these portraits in a disaster zone…
People who are more in the documentary/photojournalistic world ask “why do you have to do such constructed images in a flood zone?” But for me the whole process is collaboration. The people frequently have welcomed it as an opportunity. What I offer is a deep witnessing of what’s happened to them. I am not coming along and saying hi, I am photographing what you do anyway. It’s me saying hi, I want to do a picture of you, looking at the camera, in this environment and I demand that kind of focus and attention and engagement. A lot of people I have photographed have found it almost kind of a healing experience to do that.
For many years, I was a very traditional photojournalist. And in a way this project has been part of my journey away from photojournalism into art and activism.
How did you come into contact when working with the flood victims?
I am very moved by the people I meet. Especially how they help themselves in this situation. I met fascinating people. I only photograph them, but they leave deep marks in me.
Many influential politicians deny climate change. How have you responded to this through your art?
It gives me more energy to make more work and to get this work shown and seen. It’s so hard to illustrate climate change and talk about it. It is a crazy world where people are denying it, and businesses and corporations with money and resources are denying it. What happens in America is horrifying. So I really want my images to be part of the voices against that.
How does this work affect you?
I often get this question. I have always struggled to answer it. I recently talked to my wife about it. She is a nurse who I met in an AIDS ward 25 years ago. She said: “It’s no mystery at all. You are the kind of person who struggles to connect to your children and family who are really important to you. Yet you find it very easy to connect with strangers in distress.” You need partners to be honest sometimes and tell things as they are.
I hate the narrative that makes photographers into heroes. It’s bullshit. I have this compulsion to address these issues. I am privileged and get a lot of recognition. My wife and nurses who work in HIV don’t get any recognition at all. I am very lucky that people respond to my work.
As part of the Frankfurt’s photo triennial, RAY 2018, the exhibition Extreme. Environments, which includes work from Mendel’s series Drowning World, can be seen until September 9, 2018 in the Fotografie Forum Frankfurt.