The centerpiece of Gideon Mendel: Drowning World, a new photography exhibition opening at MOCA Jacksonville this week, features Middleburg residents Terrence McKeen and his mother Gloria standing rib-deep in water in front of their home near Black Creek, casting deadpan gazes somewhere beyond the camera. The portrait was captured a couple of days after Hurricane Irma had barreled through the belly of the Sunshine State, bringing the Atlantic Ocean and, subsequently, the St. Johns River to the doorsteps of homeowners in Northeast Florida like Terrence and Gloria. Mendel, who has been shooting photographs in flooded areas for more than a decade now, had met up with McKeen and his mother as they were preparing to check on their home.
“We went into Black Creek and found [McKeen] setting off with his mother. They didn’t know what state it was in, but they were happy for us to kind of come along,” Mendel says. “Terrence at first was going to try to walk, but the water was too high. So they pulled up to the house on the boat and he burst into tears. His whole life, everything was in there. The water had left the main section of the house and everything was completely ruined.”
Mendel describes the experiences of shooting these portraits as a kind of “deep witnessing.” As he’s traveled to disaster zones the world over, collecting images of people and places intimately effected by climate change, Mendel says his subjects have been keen to have their photographs taken. “Terrence’s mother, who’s 70, was in the boat and I was just going to shoot Terrance. But she wanted to be in the picture. So she climbed down into the water.”
Despite the severity of their situations, the faces of Mendel’s subjects—McKeen and his mother included—seem, universally, to feign nothing at all. “People ask me, ‘Did you ask them not to smile?'” Mendel says. “No, but I’m searching for a serious moment. A moment of connection. A moment where my journey and their journey interacts.”
Aside from the portraits, Mendel’s MOCA exhibit features abstract photographs of flood waters moving through personal and public spaces, a five-part video installation, and a kind of found object installation, consisting of flood-damaged photographs collected in and around Middleburg.
With Drowning World set to run from September 1— December 9 at MOCA, we sat down with Mendel to discuss the impetus for his decade-long project, the distinctive understanding he’s gained regarding the effects of climate change, and his belief in photography as a powerful tool for advocacy.
You started working on Drowning World in 2007 after photographing floods in the U.K. and India. Can you talk about how those experiences galvanized the work you’ve been doing for the last decade now?
At that moment I was trying to find a way to talk, or use my camera to address the issue of climate change and global warming. I was trying to figure it out. I had also been doing a lot of research and looking at a lot of the images that were out there. And looking at the images and searching the web, and looking at magazines, I thought the imaging of climate change was, in a lot of ways, very white–a lot of photographs of glaciers and arctic polar bears. In a lot of ways I felt the images were very far away and very distant and not very immediate to people’s lives. I was trying to find a way to make, visually, very in your face, very challenging images. I thought I’d maybe do some portraits. I went to Kenya to photograph a drought and did some other things. It wasn’t really working until I went and photographed a flood. I found something about the image of a flood very powerful. Partly I think the myth, or image of a flood, there’s something very ancient about it. In fact, virtually every ancient religion has a myth of a flood. From the Hindu Bhagavad Gita to Noah in the Bible, I think the image of a flood as an overwhelming flood that kind of comes and washes away your life is something a lot of people can connect with.
What I’ve also learned, there’s an increasing severity and volume of floods. And it coincided with work I was doing at the time—portraiture on old rolleiflex cameras. I found putting that together with being in the water quite interesting.
Being in the floods, I think it India, it occurred to me that the water had a leveling effect. Despite huge differences in culture and class and wealth a poverty in all those cultures, there was some kind of shared vulnerability which transcended those differences. I thought I was on to something.
You had previously documented the waning years of apartheid in your home country of South Africa. And you studied psychology and history in college. Do you think, given your background, you have a unique understanding of the ways in which imagery and art has the ability to impact how we view or act on a crisis?
I don’t know if it’s naive but I’ve always had a strong feeling and belief that an image could influence the world. It’s very easy to be cynical in this age with there is just so many, such an over proliferation of imagery. And the kids of lexicon and grammar of photography has changed with the kind of daily montage on our phones and whatever.
Yeah we tend to passively interact with a whole range of images and photographs throughout the day now.
Yes, exactly. So I think putting together imagery and projects in thoughtful ways can still be really powerful tools for advocacy. That’s something that I believe and hold onto. I think this project, for me, has been a journey away from a traditional photojournalistic approach. Over the years of doing it, narratives have formed and changed. I didn’t know what I was doing when I started. But it’s evolved. Since my first expression of the work in 2012, Drowning World, I’ve shown in over 20 different places. Each one has been different.
You said in the portraits, that the poses are somewhat conventional. Were there images or other photographs or artwork that inspired the poses?
I’ve always been a big fan of [Depression era photojournalist] Walker Evans and his very simple, direct portraits where you really get a sense of the person.
Looking back at all the portraits, is there an emotion that comes to the surface in a vast majority of them, regardless of where the photo was taken?
I think maybe the strength of the project is that there isn’t a clear message. There’s a gaze, but you’re not sure if it’s accusing or open or unhappy. Is it helplessness? Is it empowerment? I don’t want to describe what that is because a lot of people who view them have different reactions.
What stuck out to you or surprised you about your experience here in Northeast Florida?
People were very open and friendly and keen to be photographed, in general. It’s an interesting part of the country, Florida is isn’t it? I was between San Marco and Middleburg and I think I was struck with how different those two places were, even though they are part of the same region. It’s quite interesting to photograph such contrast.
You’ve been doing this for a decade now. Is there something that you maybe understand about the impacts of climate change that maybe others might now?
The most recent floods I did were in the south of Paris last year. We were in a suburban area. It’s a really mixed suburb. There are lots of middle class people. But there are Sri Lankan and Nigerian and other communities there, too. I went back recently just to see how things had changed six months after the flood. The middle class people who had insurance had moved back in and in some cases their houses were done up better than they had been before. But for the poorer people, nothing had changed. It was like still chaos. They were in such a difficult situation still. In the aftermath, the socio-economic situations are so different. That really struck me. When I was there photographing there didn’t seem to be much difference. But afterwards, you really got a sense of the impact on certain groups of people.