Gideon Mendel was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1959. During his thirty-year career he has moved all over our planet to pursue his photographic work. Mendel keeps returning to fateful issues for humanity, extreme situations for the human condition. As a young man Mendel worked as a photo journalist and became a part of the struggle against apartheid when he depicted the mobilization against the repressive race laws. It was a violent era, and this start to his professional career would set its stamp on his future work. Mendel’s photography is based on activism, patience and long-term commitment.
Although climate changes are a threat to humanity, they are diffuse to many people. With just a week’s interval, in 2007, Mendel photographed floods in Britain and in India. The potential to handle floods differed in the two places, but there was a general vulnerability among those who were afflicted. Mendel resolved to put faces on the statistics, to tell of how floods affect societies and individuals. Under the umbrella title Drowning Worlds there are now four series of pictures, continuous projects depicting our drowning world.
Two of these series are The Submerged Portraits and Floodlines. The Submerged Portraits are the heart of Drowning Worlds, portraits that were taken on the way to the homes of the subjects to which Mendel was invited. To reach the dwellings, they had to wade and sometimes swim through deep water. The setting is dystopian and disturbing, but via the gaze of the portrait subjects Mendel wanted to establish contact and identification between the victim and an observer. The portraits show humanity in crisis, our shared crisis. In Floodlines we see no people. Mendel has photographed the effects of the water on the homes: wallpaper, plaster, curtains can put up little resistance when the floods pour in. The water affects everything it covers. The photographs in the series can be described as portraits of a waterline: the highest level reached by the water, from which it then gradually subsided.
Gideon Mendel, born in Johannesburg, began his work as a photographer by telling about how apartheid affected South Africa and its people. Trying to understand how things are connected became Mendel’s way of using the medium, photography, that is his tool. The encounter with the Dzhangal refugee camp challenged his attitude and he was forced to reassess his work. The word “dzhangal” comes from Pashto and means “this is the jungle”. The jungle, the Dzhangal camp, was demolished in 2016 but before that about 10,000 people lived there in dreadful conditions. Mendel went there several times, for projects where he worked together with refugees, but also to document life there. The people living in Dzhangal were hostile to the camera, not believing in photographers or in the ability of pictures to help them. They did not want to be depicted, exposed, recognized. Mendel realized that photography had failed to improve refugees’ conditions, he felt that he was exploiting the people if he portrayed them. Instead Mendel began to collect lost and damaged objects that he found, and back home in London he photographed these with forensic accuracy. Violence and drama can be seen in the pictures of these cast-off artefacts, but also the refugees’ struggle to live ordinary lives in extraordinary circumstances.
Dzhangal is an Autograph ABP exhibition.
Gideon Mendel came to London at the start of the 1990s and settled there. The Ward is a series of pictures taken on a ward at Middlesex Hospital in London. The year was 1993, and the ward looked after patients with HIV/AIDS. Most of them were young homosexual men who were ineluctably facing a painful and premature death. This was Mendel’s first encounter with the disease, and since then he has followed HIV/AIDS over time and over continents. From when the diagnosis was a death sentence until today, when those who have access to antiviral drugs can live like anyone else. There were few treatment possibilities in 1993. This was a tragic period and the men that Mendel photographed had been unlucky enough to fall ill before there was any treatment. The patients were met with prejudice, hatred and fear; these men, their families and the hospital staff displayed great courage when they admitted Mendel into their lives and let him document their vulnerability.