When most people would want to get away from a place struck by a disaster, Gideon Mendel does just the opposite. The London-based photographer tries his best to reach every flood ravaged site so that he can capture it on his lens.
The World Press Photo awardee has travelled around the world documenting floods - UK (2007), Haiti (2008), Pakistan (2010), Thailand/ Australia (2011), Nigeria (2012), Germany (2013), India/ UK (2014) Brazil/Bangladesh/USA - to weave a narrative around climate change.
Since a stark tale as this requires a powerful telling, Mendel has resorted to a unique composition. On his Rolleiflex, Gideon shoots portraits of people in their homes which are submerged in water. They pose like anyone would for a normal portrait but it is their immediate surrounding - the water - that makes it different. Sadness, exhaustion, anger and resilience are evident on their faces.
“The portrait is conventional but the water around them makes it extreme. It's disconcerting,” says Gideon, who has been to India so many times but hasn't shown his pictures here before. The senior lensman is here to participate in the first edition of Travel Photo Jaipur.
This is Gideon’s response to the problem of climate change.
“Floods have been there all along. Floods have been part of ancient Hindu mythology as far as I know, but they are as much part of our lives today,” says the photographer.
Interacting with all those who have suffered, Gideon states that their reaction of anger towards the authorities is understandable. “So, they want to talk and open to tell their story and be clicked so that as many people come to know about it.”
But they still carry on with their lives.
He remembers a family in Thailand cooking amidst all this in their home. In a visual shot in Brazil, Francisca Chagas dos Santos, an elderly lady sits casually leaning against a wall. She is submerged in water and smoking. If the regal structure of Hawa Mahal are reminders of the past, Gideon's images which are on display hint at the bleak future.
Societal, environmental issues often find resonance in Gideon's practice - he has extensively work on disability and HIV and AIDS - but he is not ready to be labelled.
“There is a triangle of documentary photographer, activist and artist but I find myself somewhere in between. And I like it that way. My work can be seen in so many different contexts. It can be seen in a gallery, it has been seen in publication. I am happy if they are used in protest marches,” says the lensman whose works were showcased at different locations in Paris during COP 21. He started posting pictures of the devastation in Nigeria in 2012 on instagram and a lot of us who were obsessing with Hurricane Sandy in the US thus woke up to the tragedy in Nigeria.
Working on the project ‘Drowning World’ since 2007, he has amassed a huge body of work. But where are Chennai floods in there?
“I couldn’t come to Chennai. Logitistics, money are problematic. I have not been selling my work through galleries all these years. So, it is not easy. I sell my work and create funds to proceed for this or another project. But I hope to wind it up by next year."
But Drowning World has led him to different experiments. ‘Watermarks’ was borne out of photographs he found in the flood affected areas. The water distorts the image but lends its quirkiness through its abstract remains. “I found a treasure trove of photographs in Kashmir. So there are a lot of them in watemark series. I also helped lot of people in conserving them. But yes there are these issues of ethics associated with them which is that how do I lay claim to these pictures because I haven’t shot them. So, I say through amplification.” Now, he is toying with the idea of short films. In 2009, he made 'Water Chapters' - a series of films with each one dedicated to floods in a different city.
(For more details visit www.travelphotojaipur.com. The festival is on in Jaipur till Feb 14. Follow Gideon Mendel on Instagram @gideonmendel)