Floods of tears
How do you take photographs of climate change? Drowning World is Gideon Mendel’s attempt.
Climate sceptics will dismiss the idea that the 30 prints and three videos are about global warming and say the floods he has photographed in Australia, Pakistan, Thailand and UK are exactly that and nothing else: floods.
But the explanatory blurb for the exhibition at Somerset House in London says that although the work is not easy to categorise it sits "somewhere between photojournalism, climate change activism and art."
Mendel – a South African photographer best known for his groundbreaking work with people with HIV and AIDS – admits that flood victims do not necessarily make the connection with climate change, and sometimes actively deny it ("particularly in Australia"). But he is unequivocal: "All you can be sure of is that man-made climate change will lead to extreme weather events."”
This is not photojournalism in the conventional sense because Mendel usually gets to the scene after the initial flood. So there are few picture of surging floodwaters dashing cars and homes to pieces. They are more about the aftermath, the clean-up, about life going on, albeit soggily. Often flood victims take him back to their homes, where he photographs them in the water looking directly into the camera.
Some critics have objected, saying it is wrong, for example, to get a Pakistani woman to pose in deep floodwater.
But the photographs are strangely affecting, and the directness of the gaze of the subjects – looking at us, rather than us looking at them – is unexpected and unsettling. Most are not looking for pity or sympathy: they are getting on with their lives, and the issue of our curiosity, and culpability, is left in the air.
The videos are equally, if not more, fascinating. They contain strong documentary evidence, of, for example, the different material levels of responses in, say, Pakistan and Australia: there’s no escape from the truth that poverty and wealth are key factors in natural disasters as much as an every other aspect of life. But they are also visually interesting, an effect achieved without disaster prurience.
I would like to have seen more text. The photographs stand by themselves, but more information is needed: on the lack of preparedness in African countries, on the environmental degradation in Haiti which multiplies the effects of such disasters, on Thailand’s ability to carry on amidst incredible devastation, about the wielding of feudal power in Pakistan that enables big landowners to divert waters.
As Mendel develops the project - other exhibitions and publications will surely follow - I hope he will find ways of combining the images with words to maximise the impact of what is becoming a global phenomenon.
* Drowning World is at Somerset House, Strand, London WC2, until 5 June. Info: 7845 4600/ firstname.lastname@example.org
+ Drowning World/
+ Mendel’s website
+ OneWorld’s guide to global justice events in London
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