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Photographing the desperately sad gaze of having lost everything

  • GideonMedel
The silence grabs you first as you walk into Gideon Mendel’s Drowning World, a selection of photographs from his eponymous 10-year project, currently on show at Wits Art Museum.
by ROBYN SASSEN | Nov 02, 2017

It’s the silence and the gaze of those photographed. And then you notice that everyone in every photograph is truncated as each one is standing in cold, dark water. This holds your heart in thrall, as you walk through the exhibition.

But Drowning World is more than just an exhibition. Having earned Mendel first prize in the inaugural New York-based Pollock Award for Creativity last year, in the name of American painter Jackson Pollock, it’s about awareness of global warming.

Self-taught as a photographer, Mendel came of age in South Africa in the 1980s. Apartheid was at its most aggressive peak. He describes the country at the time as an intensely moral environment, rife with opportunities for self-expression, particularly if you had a keen eye, a strong sense of conviction and a great sense of empathy.

“It was a privilege to work with such a clear sense of right and wrong at the time,” he says. “I think that sort of marked me.”

Leap forward several decades. Mendel now lives in London. “In 2007, there was a flood in England,” he remembers. “I was experimenting with making portraits with a newly-acquired Rolleiflex camera. Six weeks later, there was a flood in India. And the die was cast.

“I was deeply struck by the contrasting impacts of these two floods, and the shared vulnerability that united their victims. Since then I endeavoured to visit flood zones around the world.”

Working on the project has taken him to 13 countries, including Bangladesh and Thailand, France and Australia, England, Nigeria and the United States.

Referring to himself as a “global flood vulture”, he says this is not documentation in any simple way with an environmental set of circumstances, or a bottomless budget. It’s a deep, achingly human gesture. The images focus on the lives of people the floods have touched. They give you to understand the horror of the situation when you are looking at these people in their eyes.

Some of these photographed, are of the First World, others eke out a living at the bottom of the world’s economy. Some have the wherewithal to wear diving suits to protect their bodies from the rank water in which their furniture floats, others don’t. They stand alone, or embrace their loved ones. They are old, young, black, white. It doesn’t matter: the look in their eyes is the same. It says they have lost everything.

The project embraces four focuses: conventional images of waterlogged landscapes; submerged portraits of the flood victims; visual documents of the waterline inside domestic environments; and photographs peering through water damage at the mementoes of ordinary people.

“My subjects often invite me back to their homes,” he adds. “To get there we travel together through deep floodwaters. When I take the photo, the subjects take up a conventional pose, in spite of their environment being grotesquely abnormal.”

Here is a photograph of a child; the texture of the photographic paper is bloated and discoloured beyond recognition, just a little chubby hand on one side of a great big stain, blooming like a cancer on the surface of the photograph that once was.

There is a couple standing in what was their lounge. The water is at waist level. And their horror of now having nothing, sits like a massive exclamation mark in this silent wateriness. There are no tears. Just blank horror.

In another image, two young Muslim women stand, hijab in place, the world around them like a stage set. It gives you a jolt when you realise that the bold setting in which you see them, is a by-product of the flood waters. And you experience another jolt when you lower your eyes to acknowledge the flat line of browning water that hides the lower part of their legs.

The body of displayed work, which comprises photographs from each of the project’s components as well as a 39-minute-long looped video, opens up a collective empathy for human beings. At base we are all the same: We like to own things. We have a sense of our own importance. The weather is a great and relentless leveller.

Photography, by its nature stands in the oft rickety breach between art and documentation, an uncomfortable ethical place which is very clear in this exhibition. You do not emerge from looking at it with a sense of aesthetic victory. You emerge with awareness. And with a feeling of having touched the fabric of what makes life precious on this planet.

•     Drowning World by Gideon Mendel is at Wits Art Museum, Braamfontein, until February 15, 2018.

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