Drowning World by Gideon Mendel (Arles-2017)


Drowning World explores the human dimension of climate change by focusing on floods across geographical and cultural boundaries. Rather than the literal depiction of disaster zones, Gideon Mendel focuses on the personal impact of flooding to evoke our shared vulnerability to global warming. Since 2007, Mendel has documented floods in 13 countries. The Submerged Portraits series are intimate portraits of flood victims. Their poses may seem conventional but their context is catastrophe, and their unsettling gazes challenge us deeply. The marks left by floodwater, especially in domestic spaces, are the focus of the Floodlines series, which presents the paradox of order and calm within chaos. The Watermarks series consists of enlargements of flood-damaged personal snapshots, sometimes anonymous flotsam fished from the water or mud, sometimes given by homeowners.

This series of portraits of people in flooded domestic situations is not situated in any one place but across continents; this gives the work extra value. While this exhibition attracts me because of the subject, I found that when I was covering the flooding near my home in Somerset, I was responding to the brief which was the sublime and beautiful in the landscape rather than people personally effected.



United States, India, Brazil, Haiti, United Kingdom, Nigeria, Thailand, Bangladesh, Pakistan … individuals from these countries are all featured in this first row of photographs; location portraits that show people with respect in the horror of their situations.


There is also a collection of photographs found at different locations. These are illustrated in eight large frames while others have been blown up to a much larger size and printed. By focusing on the landscape, I was aware of not infringing on people undergoing hardship yet Mendel has entered the privacy of other people’s lives to show the turmoil and tragedy they are experiencing which is appropriate since the world needs to know of the plight of people who suffer in natural disasters. Said to be the result of climate change, they are going to effect more and more of us and we need to better understand their impact.


 Mendel has also photographed ruined interiors, another reminder of the personal effect such disasters wreak.



There are more portraits of different people looking stoical as they pose in the floodwaters of their homes; there are also blow ups of the details of buildings such as windows reflected in the water.

There is a room showing video chapters, nine in all. One is struck by the silence and the people none of whom smile in any way as is often the case when being photographed. I wonder if there is a deliberate attempt on behalf of the photographer to emphasise the seriousness of the situations these people find themselves in. Might some have had a more optimistic acceptance of what had happened? The fact that there are no smiles at all in the video clips makes me question the photographer’s intent if not influence. Asian people are more accepting of disaster and I think of the Steve Mac Curry smiling tailor photograph showing the man with his sewing machine on his shoulder neck deep in water yet still smiling.

Perhaps humanity is a little more stoical than Mendel wants us to think!?

In regard to my own work, I see how I might have made more twilight images, focused more on details and used some video. I chose to exclude people because of the brief and not wanting to impose myself as a voyeur. Some of the photographs included are of the area I covered in Somerset and tend to be interiors which is interesting; mini-landscapes of domestic interiors meeting the dirty water.



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