Gideon Mendel’s Portraits From a Drowning World

Since 2007 Gideon Mendel has been strapping on waders, flagging down boats, and taking his Rolleiflex film camera into floodwaters around the world. His ongoing project, “Drowning World,” features seemingly serene portraits of flood victims in unexpected places. The project is Mendel’s personal response to climate change, taking viewers beyond statistics and into the experiences of the people directly affected by the floods.

Inspired by the powerful, almost biblical, symbolism of the flood, Mendel’s signature style is to make still and video portraits of people in their submerged environments. The victims often appear stoic, paralyzed, and numb. Yet, Mendel says, they often tell him they are grateful to have him bear witness.

“I sense an almost shared vulnerability across cultures, across nations, across all these different countries,” he says. “When I look at people’s faces through the ground glass of the Rolleiflex, there’s always something quite vulnerable and fragile there.”

His portraits seem to reflect a deep intimacy despite his having met most of his subjects only moments before. He often works with a fixer, or assistant, who helps him communicate with local people and carry gear. And he continues to shoot 120mm film, despite, he says, other photographers telling him he’s crazy.

“Shooting digitally would make life much, much easier. But I think with my film pictures there’s a kind of magic which happens out of making things so difficult for myself. It’s a completely self-imposed set of rules, but sometimes I find it helpful to have your own rules no matter how crazy they seem to other people.”

Mendel has made flood portraits in eight different countries, and last October he returned to India, where he had first photographed flood victims in 2007. This time, the Jhelum River in Kashmir overspilled its banks after torrential rains, submerging the city of Srinigar under more than 12 feet of water. More than 500 people across India and Pakistan died in related flooding.

Mendel arrived two weeks after the initial torrent. Most of the water had left rural towns and villages, but Srinigar was still under water. With no hotels or restaurants available, he stayed with the family of his local fixer, Gowhar Fazili, who turned out to be both an amateur photographer and a Kashmiri sociologist.

Mendel says photographing in Srinigar was somewhat different than other flood zones he’s worked in, as the city is home to a range of social classes. He photographed both the well-off and the poor—both groups equally confounded by the catastrophe, with many people complaining that they didn’t get enough warning from local authorities before the flood.

“With floods I’ve often experienced a huge anger with the authorities—it’s a common theme—and people in Kashmir were furious with the government,” he says. “Most people I spoke to had 20 minutes or half an hour to flee their houses.”

As a result, most people weren’t able to save valuables from their old mud homes, many of which were completely destroyed.

While not a typical documentary videographer, Mendel captured unique footage of a couple in Srinigar who were returning to their home for the first time, 20 days after the flooding. Because the water was so high—in some cases up to their necks—Mendel only carried a small Sony video camera as he accompanied Syed and Saba Makeba through the floodwaters, experiencing the discovery of their disaster along with them. (He had accidentally submerged his brand-new Canon 5D Mark III a few days prior.)

Mendel walked with them for more than a mile as they made their way through their gate, past flooded cars, and finally into their mud-filled home.

“When they first saw the house it looked intact, but when they got inside it was clear how incredibly damaged everything was,” he says. “It was a really poignant experience going into the home with them.”

Ultimately, through his portraits, Mendel is trying to tell a larger story about climate change by asking us to see ourselves in each victim. He asks us to stare into their eyes and realize that any one of them could be us.

“Although there are many different factors that go into it, I do see [flooding] very much as a result of climate change, and I’m absolutely, one thousand percent certain that climate change is an immense problem and a huge challenge to us, to our children, and to our children’s generations,” he says.

“My photographs are a very small reflection of the many floods around the world that have had a huge impact on so many lives.”

*****

Gideon Mendel got his start photographing the struggle against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s. For more than 20 years he has focused on global issues related to HIV/AIDS, founding the collaborative project Through Positive Eyes. He has been working on “Drowning World” since 2007 and was assisted in Srinigar, India, by Gowhar Fazili and Dayan Malik.

An essay and images from “Drowning World” are featured in the February issue of National Geographic. See more of Mendel’s work at gideonmendel.com and on Instagram.

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