Gideon Mendel has worked as a photojournalist and documentary-maker for over twenty years, focusing his energies on dealing with the most pressing “issues of the time.” In his latest and longest-running body of work, “Drowning World,” he has decided to confront the urgency of climate change and, in particular, rising sea levels around the world, turning his lens to raise awareness on this urgent matter.

When the project first began in 2007, Mendel had two young kids and was imagining what their world would be like in 30 to 40 years. He began looking for imagery of climate change, and what he found was “how metaphorically and literally white it was: polar bears and glaciers.” From Mendel’s point of view, the photography needed to be more human, and viewers needed to see the personal, individual ravages of climate change in places all over the globe. He sought to use the immediacy of portraiture to tell those stories.

Submerged Portrait © Gideon Mendel

That he chose photography for this endeavor was no accident. Mendel can speak from deep, personal experience on the power of photography to affect change locally and beyond. After all, his roots as a “struggle photographer” began with his coming of age in apartheid South Africa. In his words, “this had an indelible impact on my being. Growing up as a white South African, I felt powerless and carried a lot of guilt and anguish. The voice that the camera gave me was key; the images were an essential part of the struggle. Photography gave me an ability to act.”

Since then, Mendel has been devoted to creating images that can make a difference in the world around him. In “Drowning World,” for example, Mendel envisions his work existing in a triangle, with one corner in each of three camps: the journalistic, the non-governmental and the artistic. Parts of this project have been published repeatedly in The Guardian and National Geographic; parts were shot on commission for NGOs; and now a retrospective gathering is being shown at the Rencontres d’Arles to a diverse crowd of photography experts and the wider public.

Despite its latest iteration in a fine art context, Mendel wants to emphasize the connection he has with his subjects. These aren’t just figures on the wall: they are human beings. His subjects in “Drowning World”—lacking any other autonomy—want to be photographed; they want to witness and be witnessed, want to remember this moment before they must face the facts of their situation. Mendel knows he can’t do much on his own to change their situation, but he feels they appreciate the power and voice that the camera and portrait affords them.

As a photographer, Mendel’s process cuts across different media and genres. While some are surprised to see Mendel carefully planning and conceptualizing his photographs rather than shooting groundbreaking images in the heat of the moment, in every photographic endeavor his process is carefully considered and sensitive to the visual potency that arises from a world in peril. In the case of flooding, Mendel discovered an unusual chronology, far different than the “breaking news” situations he once frequented. At the start, of course, is the period that traditionally motivates photojournalistic pursuits, filled with fleeing, chaos and death. Later, the water recedes. But prior to that, there comes a very particular period consisting of an extended spell of stillness. Much as the world is paralyzed during a flood, so are his subjects. At this time, the world lies in a state of limbo.

Submerged Portrait © Gideon Mendel

Amidst the interminable wait for the waters to recede, there is numbness and disbelief. It’s a surreal, protracted instant, and one that offers immense visual power—reflections everywhere, the world turned upside down. It is at these times that Mendel makes his work, traveling to people’s homes and spending time with them to find out their story. After making his portraits, the water slowly drains away and the nightmare begins—people are forced to return to their muddy, ruined homes and start the long process of cleaning and rebuilding. But Mendel captures a singular moment, which evidences his awareness of the unique subject he is capturing and his ability (and sensitivity) to capture the chaos with poetry and empathy.

Besides his affecting portraits, Mendel has also worked in several other veins. An accompanying series, “Floodlines,” lacks an obvious human presence but casts a different sort of spell. Thanks to the flatness and consistency of the dead-on view, we feel a sense of immersion in the work. It’s adjunct to his portraits and equally important in the strength of Mendel’s exhibition.

Floodlines © Gideon Mendel

Another key element in this exhibition is his series “The Watermarks.” Unlike “Submerged Portraits” and other carefully pre-meditated bodies of work, this project grew out of an accident. While shooting in Haiti during a 2008 flood, not one but both of Mendel’s Rolleiflexes fell in the water. Once they had dried, Mendel pressed on and shot some 40 rolls. Despite his best efforts, the cameras soon ground to a halt—and the rolls that had been shot were largely ruined as well. Still, a few badly water-damaged images emerged. As Mendel handled these distorted photographs, he saw how the flood waters he had been photographing from a distance had finally penetrated down to the very material substrate of his work. This fortunate mishap pushed his series into a conceptual, non-documentary place.

Later, during a flood in Australia, Mendel came across a pile of water-logged personal snapshots. He now had another aim when in flooded areas—besides giving a visual voice to the victims, he also sought to offer new life to semi-destroyed personal photographs. As curator Christine Eyene writes, “[although an initially] disastrous element, water also contributes to the creative process. Washed out pigments create new painterly patterns, damaged films produce soft tones and mysterious haze, while architecture and landscape are reflected in the sparkling natural mirror.”

Tideline installation at Les Rencontres d’Arles © Gideon Mendel

At his exhibition in Arles, 322 of these photographs marked by water are shown. The cleverly conceived exhibition—curated with the help of Autograph ABP’s director Mark Seeley—puts a great emphasis on the found photographs’ “objectness.” Not only are enlarged images shown on the wall—with their edges and materiality clearly evident­—but Mendel and Seeley worked hard to conceive of a presentation method that would show the original objects to the viewer. These immense “octotychs” (in Mendel’s words) convey the feeling of flooding on both the micro- and macro-scale, providing another memorable visual tool for Mendel to tell his (and his subjects’) story.

Finally, Mendel has produced a 9-chapter multimedia narrative on flooding around the world. From Thailand to Brazil and Nigeria and many places in between (including, most recently, France), these video productions provide just one more means of engaging his viewers with the urgency of rising sea levels and the disastrous impact of flooding.

Mendel does not consider himself romantic nor unrealistic. He is certainly impassioned and dedicated, and he is doing what he can to shake us from our complacency concerning the planet’s greatest threat. In the end, he hopes we will question our sense of stability and consider ways to personally engage with issues of climate change. If we don’t face the scale of what’s in front of us soon, there simply won’t be another chance.

—Alexander Strecker

Editors’ note: Drowning World” will be shown at Ground Control at this year’s Rencontres d’Arles. The exhibition was curated by Mark Seeley, the director of London’s Autograph ABP. An official walkthrough will be held at 11 am on Friday. Mendel’s work is represented by Axis Gallery in New York. They played a key role in supporting the creation of these series and providing feedback on Mendel’s ideas.