For several years, the South Africa-born, London-based photographer Gideon Mendel has been photographing floods around the world. His approach is not the standard photojournalistic one: Instead, arriving some time after the deluge, Mendel takes deeply personal portraits of individuals and families who are coming to terms with what they have lost. In many of his portraits, flood victims stand inside their homes, water lapping at their waists, their faces conveying shock, or sorrow, or determination.
City Makers: Global Shifts
In May 2016, an exhibition of Mendel’s photographs and videos called Drowning World will open at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University. CityLab recently spoke with Mendel via Skype about his work.
You’re known for documenting the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. When did you become interested in flooding, and why?
It’s always hard to be specific about these things, but it came out of a desire at a certain point, a little more than 10 years ago, to find a way to address the issue of climate change. Initially, I was thinking of [photographing] a whole variety of climate-change victims. I photographed a drought in Kenya.
Then I had the experience of photographing two floods in 2007. There was a large flood in the UK and a massive flood in India the same year. I realized very quickly that there’s something very elemental and powerful about a flood. It sort of coincided with me shooting a certain style of portraiture on old Rolleiflex cameras. I began experimenting with a fairly staid style of portraiture, also using my photojournalist skills of using available light. It all sort of clicked—this fairly counterintuitive idea of slowing down the whole process of being in a flood.
How do people react when they’re caught in a flood?
The moment when people are trying to flee or save their possessions is not the moment I’m there. I’m normally at a flood some time after. You can see high-water marks on the walls, often, in my images. Sometimes it’s a couple of weeks; the water [can] hang around for a long time.
“Once the water is gone and you’re left with a thick residue of stinking mud, and you have to deal with that—that’s when the horror really begins.”
When the water is there, everything is kind of suspended. There’s a lot of shock; people can’t do very much. In my frequent experience, [based on] long-term contact with some people, the really, really horrible time is when the water goes. Once the water is gone and you’re left with a thick residue of stinking mud, and you have to deal with that—that’s when the horror really begins.
Are there cultural differences in how people respond to a disaster?
It’s quite amazing, how there’s often a similar sense of vulnerability across a huge variety of situations. Often a shared sense of anger—a lot of people have anger. [Many people] appreciate being photographed, the sense of witness.
It is interesting to see to what extent people are comfortable or uncomfortable in the water. Working in Thailand, for example, people very much carried on their lives amidst the water. Shops would stay open, even though there was three feet of water in the shop. People were still using gas to cook their meals, with water inches below the worktop. In Bangkok [in 2011], the water had risen very slowly and come up from the drains over about two weeks. When the water comes more destructively—more immediately—it’s quite different.
I recently photographed the floods in South Carolina. The people I photographed had no flood insurance at all. It meant they were taking a huge personal loss. Essentially, they had lost a big chunk of their lives.
When I photographed in Kashmir [in 2014], a lot of people’s homes were almost totally destroyed. Big, beautiful houses, old and built out of mud. Both [South Carolina and Kashmir] are places where flooding is not something common or expected.
Is the Drowning World project nearing its end?
I’d like to continue shooting [over] the coming year. I would like to include a country like China or Japan, potentially do more in America, and also in Africa. So the challenge, as always, is getting the funds to do the work. I definitely need to draw the work toward a conclusion; I’m thinking I’d like to produce a book by 2017.
What is your next project?
I have a loose idea of staying within the environmental theme, and working my way through the elements slowly. There’s earth and fire and air, and there’s a lot one could do with each of those elements.
This interview has been edited and condensed.