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City Press speaks to South Africa-born photojournalist Gideon Mendel

2016-10-30 12:50
Photo by Gideon Mendel

London -  South Africa-born photojournalist Gideon Mendel has been travelling the world for the past nine years attempting to document the personal effect of global warming, and discovering what he calls “our shared vulnerability” at a time when people are left with nothing.

His Drowning World series of images – one part of which is the powerful Submerged Portraits on this page that recently won the Greenpeace Photo Award 2016 – is a central focus of this year’s LagosPhoto, which opened to the public last week.

Speaking from London on Tuesday, the city that he has called home since 1991, Mendel tells me the “flood addiction” he’s developed began when a series of back-to-back floods shook London and India in 2007, both of which he found himself in the middle of.

He noticed at that moment that the coverage of floods consisted primarily of the before-and-after sort of photograph, or some shocking image of physical damage that the disaster had wrought, what Mendel calls “remote coverage”.

He knew then that he “wanted to make a body of work that was immediate, where you are looking in the eyes of the people who are directly affected”.

It’s this need to explore the immediacy of a crisis that’s seen him travelling from Haiti to Pakistan, Australia, Thailand, Nigeria, Germany and elsewhere in the search for these stories.

In the more than 100 portraits he’s taken for his Submerged Portraits series, the subjects address the camera directly. “To make a deep portrait like that requires a very deep connection in a moment of crisis,” he says.

One of the portraits stands out in his mind as we talk. “I took one portrait in Nigeria of this woman, Florence Abraham. I think it’s one of the strongest images from the series that was taken during the floods in 2012 – a vastly underreported event.

“She was a baker who had lost everything. She showed me her equipment, her ovens, she employed 25 people. She had no insurance, everything was completely gone. Her life had been completely wiped away, as well as that of the 45 people who made their living from selling her bread.

“When I am working, I have a sort of standard deal where I offer the people I am working with $30 [R411] for coming with me, and taking the time to be photographed, and to be interviewed. When Florence and I had finished talking, I made the move to pay her and she – being this fiercely proud woman – refused. She said, ‘I don’t want your money, I just want you to show people what has happened to me.’

“People often ask me what people get out of being photographed, what do I get, what is the deal? And I just think there’s something about having what’s just happened to you being witnessed that’s enough for a lot of the people in the images. And I think that’s what I provide, some kind of witnessing.”

The pictures have been in hundreds of publications, such as National Geographic, and are being shown in museums and galleries around the world, but, increasingly, the photos are being used as images of protest.

At this year’s COP21 conference on climate change, they were turned into placards for a mass protest but, in an extraordinary turn of events, were banned by police as “illegal weapons” when they were used as shields.

Yet, aside from their usefulness and their ability to evoke conversation, the images are almost painterly in execution, works of visual activism that are more metaphorical than “providing evidence” of climate change.

“I am visually drawn to flooding,” he says. “There is something about the landscape of a flood that is dramatically visual, you know, the reflections, the silence, the water, the sense of life being turned upside down. Things aren’t what they’re meant to be.”

If you happen to be in Nigeria, head to LagosPhoto, where a large selection of Mendel’s work will be on display. Alternatively, you can catch an exhibition of Mendel’s work at the Wits Art Museum in October 2017, so keep your eyes open for that. Until then, head to for a look at what he does.

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