Gideon Mendel Submerged Portraits oão Pereira de Araújo, Rio Branco, Brazil, March 14, 2015.
"I've seen many floods in my life, but never this high. My house was built on stilts, but now the floor below is underwater. I look out the window and I see street after street under water - so many houses and shops. what we can do is wait for the water to come down, clean and continue". João Pereira de Araújo, Rio Branco, Brazil, March 14, 2015. Portrait from the series "Submerged Portraits".

“There was a point, for me, where I was researching images referring to global warming and I felt they were too far away. They were images of polar bears and glaciers, and often aesthetically beautiful scenery,” Gideon Mendel once told journalist Adele Peters. THE south african photographer – with a body of work on climate disasters that spans over a decade – seeks to offer another facet to the representation in images of one of the most perplexing global crises.

Mendel confesses to Peters that “much of the dialogue around climate change and the response of organizations is linked to a kind of white, middle-class and formerly hippie ecological movement”, which would be limiting its effectiveness, given that the changes climate change affects many people of color around the world – “I really feel that an injection of a more radical kind of activism is needed,” he adds. Gideon's observation is not unreasonable, as researcher Emmanuel Skoufias notes: "While the eyes of the world are riveted on polar bears, Antarctic penguins and other inhabitants threatened by the melting of the Earth's polar ice caps, relatively few researchers have paid due attention to – until recent years – to quantify the possible long-term effects of climate change on human survival.”

“I bring people to the representation of climate change,” says Gideon, based in London. with your project submerged portraits, he began documenting floods in 2007, when a series of summer rains left much of central and northern Britain under water. Within a matter of weeks of the first episode, millions of people in Bangladesh, India and Nepal had to escape floods far greater than they had ever seen. The contrast between the impacts of the two events (while sharing a certain vulnerability that seems to provide a stimulus for unity) motivated the photographer to link the idea of ​​portraying flood victims. Since then, he has visited Australia, Bangladesh, Kashmir, Haiti, Pakistan and the United States, to name a few of the 13 countries that, within the project, represent 19 floods.

before developing submerged portraits (encompassed by a larger project called Drowning World), Mendel was no longer a novice. He had imagetically represented themes such as Apartheid and the crisis of HIV / AIDS in South Africa, for which he won the W. he stares submerged portraits as a departure from classic photojournalism: “I'm not a documentary filmmaker, I'm a kind of actor”, he says. “I'm not just photographing what's in front of me, I'm building scenarios with people. I'm choosing the background, I'm choosing where to put people. I'm not going up to them and taking their pictures. I'm not producing evidence, I'm looking to make images that speak volumes because they are aesthetically powerful and even because of their disconcerting beauty in the midst of horror.”

Gideon Mendel: "Nobody can remember a bigger flood. I heard that the government has plans to move us out and turn this area into a park. But I've heard it for years and we're still here. When the floods come, we take our stuff and we left for a while." Francisca Chagas dos Santos, Rio Branco, Brazil, March 10, 2015. Portrait from the series "Submerged Portraits".
“No one can remember a bigger flood. I heard that the government has plans to move us and turn this area into a park. But I've heard it for years and we're still here. When the floods come, we pack our things and leave for a while.” Francisca Chagas dos Santos, Rio Branco, Brazil, March 10, 2015. Portrait from the series “Submerged Portraits”.

There is something disconcerting about the images. On the one hand they are conventional portraits of people standing in front of the camera and looking at it. However, the context, landscape and environment are extraordinary. Soon, they are disconcerting together. This classic portrait format helps impart honesty to submerged portraits, an admission of scene manipulation.

There is a sense of being witnessed. I can't help people, I don't have the resources to bring about change. But I offer a kind of testimony. And some people seem to value and appreciate it.

When he came to Rio Branco, in 2013, the level of the Acre River had reached 17,88 meters, having exceeded its historical quota, recorded in 1997, when it reached 17,66 meters. According to the G1 news portal, at the time, five public shelters were mobilized in the capital of Acre to keep the flood victims safe: around 6 homeless people and another 70 affected. The report also indicates that forty of the city's 212 neighborhoods were impacted by the flood of the Acre River, whose level is normally around six to eight meters – in periods of drought it can be below three. Mendel reports that when he got there, the water level had already dropped, having previously passed over the roofs of some houses. "The people [I portrayed] belonged to a poor community and they didn't have access to running water, so they used floodwater to clean their walls."

From the Floodlines series: Mendel records the mark left by the rise in the water level at the entrance of a house in the district of Taquari. Rio Branco, Brazil, March 2015.
From the series “Floodlines”: Mendel records the mark left by the rise in the water level at the entrance of a house in the Taquari district. Rio Branco, Brazil, March 2015.

Analyzing the environmental response scenario since then, the photographer makes the caveat: “It was not that the government before Bolsonaro was brilliant in terms of its response to the environment, in fact I think it had been acting in very contradictory ways. But now, what is terrifying, in a global sense, is that at a time in history where coordinated global action is needed – particularly on climate change – there are so many populist leaders in the world who are doing their best to undermine environmental efforts – and I think with great support from a petrochemical industrial complex.”

In 2011, in the article Four phrases that make Pinocchio's nose grow, the Uruguayan journalist and writer Eduardo Galeano also notes the support of sectors of the industry in this reversal of environmental efforts – although, at that time, he did not refer to the phenomenon of populism. Galeano reminds us that of the ten largest seed companies in the world, six manufacture pesticides (Sandoz-Ciba-Geigy, Dekalb, Pfizer, Upjohn, Shell, ICI). “The chemical industry does not have masochistic tendencies”, writes the Uruguayan. He states: “The recovery of the planet or what is left of it implies the denunciation of the impunity of money and human freedom. Neutral ecology, which most resembles gardening, becomes an accomplice to the injustice of a world where healthy food, clean water, clean air and silence are not the rights of all – but the privileges of the few. who can pay for them”.

The relationship between class and the environmental crisis, highlighted by Galeano in this passage, has gained greater attention in the last decade. This is a factor that Mendel did not let go unnoticed, due to the time-spatial diversity among those represented, people who – even belonging to the same country, but in different regions – will have different conditions to deal with the damage caused by floods and reconstruction. of their lives.

Em report released by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA-UN), social inequality (not only economic, but also political power) and the climate crisis are interconnected – mostly – by three factors: the exposure of disadvantaged social groups the “adverse effects of climate change”; the susceptibility of disadvantaged groups to damage from climate hazards; and the relative ability of these groups to cope with and recover from the harm they suffer. In the case of floods, for example, disadvantaged groups are more likely to live in areas prone to being flooded, however, they have less economic and political power to recover from the damage caused by the floods and/or demand compensation from the State.

“We live in capitalism. His power seems inescapable. The same happened with the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often start in art,” said the late writer Ursula K. Le Guin in 2014, aged 84. Regarding Le Guin's speech, Mendel confesses: “I would like to agree, but I feel very desolate about the future”. Despite this, he also notes that he could be surprised. “I came of age in South Africa in the late 1980s. I would never have imagined that apartheid would have fallen, it was completely inconceivable, so we might be surprised at how things change.”

Gideon Mendel, Fire series, Anthony Montagner with his family, his wife Fina and their children Christian (9) and Dylan (6), where they used to be their home, now completely destroyed by the flames. Upper Brogo, Australia, January 18, 2020.
“Other fires hit me years ago, but this one was a monster; he was running as fast as my van. I didn't have a photo left to show my children what their grandmother looked like. I don't have any more pictures of my childhood or anything I did when I was a teenager. It's like I never existed,” says Anthony Montagner. In the photo from the “Fire” series, Anthony is with his family, his wife Fina and their children Christian (9) and Dylan (6), where he used to be his home, now completely destroyed by the flames. Upper Brogo, Australia, January 18, 2020.

The hopelessness in his speech is put to the test, however, by the continuity of his projects, which, according to the photographer, are established in a sustained pyramid between documentary, art, and activism. "With Drowning World, has always been a debate: when do we finish? Can I finish? And at what time? At what point is it complete? And that's a question that I haven't resolved on my own yet, because there's always more to do.” Mendel also plans to continue the project Fire, which covers another facet of climate disasters driven by human action. For your next venture with Fire, the photographer plans to raise funds to finance a return to California, where he photographed in 2018, and to Brazil, to document the consequences of the Pantanal burning.

With Drowning World, has always been a debate: when are we done? Can I finish? And at what time? At what point is it complete? And this is a question that I still haven't solved by myself, because there's always more to do.

In addition to following up on these two works, he is studying the possibility of creating an unprecedented production based on his family history. His parents were German Jews who found refuge in South Africa. His paternal grandmother also tried to leave Germany, but was unable to do so. The photographer's father kept the documents that had been prepared for the mother's coming, however. To this, Gideon adds correspondence and albums made by his grandmother, who studied photography in Berlin from 1915 to 1917. “I've been stuck in this job for so many years and I've always resisted starting it, but the time has come to try. Maybe I had to wait for my mother to die; she passed away two years ago. The problem is that this is not a unique story, many families were injured by the migrations, the question is how do I do it, what can I bring to this project”. It remains to follow its path to find out.

*Modifications have been made to the article for clarity.

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