Capturing the impacts of wildfires and flooding globally

Capturing the impacts of wildfires and flooding globally
Since 2007, Gideon Mendel has made 20 trips to document floods in 13 countries. The result is an alarming record of what has already been lost to the climate emergency.

Just over a decade ago in 2012, photographer Gideon Mendel travelled to Nigeria after hearing about the outbreak of flooding across the country. The floods were a  natural and humanitarian disaster in the country, killing 363 people and displacing over two million from their homes.

Mendel travelled to the southern state of Bayelsa and while he was in the small town of Igbogene, he met a woman named Florence Abraham, who was forced to flee her home after it was engulfed by water. After striking up a conversation, she agreed to take Mendel to see the house that she’d lived in, and the bakery that she owned and managed – but it would require a mile’s trek through the water to get there.

“It was just quite an unforgettable mission,” says Mendel. “The water was chest high, and my assistant was carrying my camera bag over his head. She showed me her flooded home, her flooded bakery, flooded machines.”

Florence Abraham, Igbogene Bayelsa State Nigeria, November 2012. From the series Drowning World.

While they were in the house Abraham had called home, she stood in the remnants of a small room with blue walls – emptied and left with nothing but the waist high water – and Mendel lined the shot up and took her picture.

The powerful portrait is now part of Mendel’s exhibition, Fire / Flood, on display at London’s Soho Photography Quarter. After taking the picture, he offered her some money as he usually does for his subjects – about the equivalent of $20 USD to acknowledge the time that she had taken out to revisit a traumatic space, as well as offer a small amount of assistance to someone whose life had been upended.

“She responded quite strongly,” Mendel says. “She just said: ‘No, please I don’t want your money – I want you to show the world what’s happened to me.’”

Since 2007, Mendel has been making it his life’s work to document floods around the world, and the impact that they have on people affected by them. He has travelled to 13 different countries on 20 separate trips for his ongoing series Drowning World – taking portraits of people and places wrecked by flooding, from Pakistan to Paris. In Fire / Flood, the arresting images are juxtaposed with those of his Burning World series, in which instead of the devastation caused by water, he has been documenting those wrecked by wildfires.

Amjad Ali Laghari, Goth Bawal Khan village, Sindh Province, Pakistan, September 2022. From the series Drowning World.

With scorched buildings and habitats forming the backdrops for the series, Mendel chose not to focus on the fires themselves, but instead the long-lasting destruction left by blazes. “I felt I didn’t want to photograph the burning fires, other people do that very well,” he says. “Fires are very dramatic and very visual, but it isn’t a space where you can take time with people and make really strong portraits.”

In both series, the portrait is an important format for Mendel, putting human beings centre stage. He had begun to question the impact humans were having on the world’s climate around the turn of the millennium when his children were born.

“I did the mental exercise of trying to imagine the world they’ll be living in when they were my age,” he says. “I looked at a lot of images out there of climate change and they felt very distancing – there were lots of polar bears and far away, beautiful glacial landscapes. But it just didn’t feel very much about people, and it didn’t feel very immediate.

Abdul Ghafoor, Mohd Yousof Naich School, Sindh Province, Pakistan, October 2022. From the series Drowning World

“I wanted to make work that was visceral,” he continues. “Which showed the way climate change was impacting human lives and human existence.”

Having documented environmental catastrophe for the better part of two decades, he is now pessimistic. “My response has always been very individual and subject to my resources and circumstances,” he says. “But it does feel like the drum roll is getting stronger – every year there’s more fires, more floods.

“When I began this project it was out of fear for how it would impact the lives of my children,” he adds. “But now I feel it’s going to really impact my life.”

Gurjeet Dhanoa, Rock Creek, Superior, Colorado, USA, March 2022. From the series Burning World

shirley-armitage-moorland-village-somerset-uk-february-2014

Jenni Bruce, Upper Brogo, New South Wales, Australia, January 15 2020. From the series Burning World

Gideon Mendel: Fire / Flood runs till 31 May 2023 at Soho Photography Quarter. 

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