GIDEON MENDEL’S SUBMERGED PORTRAITS
South African photographer, Gideon Mendel recently featured with his work, ‘Submerged Portraits’ in the seventh edition of the LagosPhoto Festival themed Inherent Risk and Performance. A subset from his series on global flooding called ‘Drowning World’; it is Mendel’s attempt to explore the effects of climate change in a more intimate manner.
Who inspired you to be a photographer?
South African photographer, David Goldblatt inspired me, as well as another famous photographer Eli Weinberg who was part of the African National Congress and took the famous picture of Nelson Mandela. Globally, I’m inspired by the work of Eugene Smith; he has a long-term commitment to his projects, which I’ve adopted with my long-term engagements.
The series of photographs currently showing at the LagosPhoto is called ‘Drowning World’?
Yes it is ‘Drowning World’ although what they’re showing is a particular subset as it is a broad project with different narratives. This set of portraits being shown is called ‘Submerged Portraits’.
Brigitte and Friedhelm Totz. Elster village, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany
Would you tell me more about the ‘Submerged Portraits’?
It’s a body of work I’ve been preoccupied with for 9 years, and which I’ve photographed in 13 different countries in search of a kind of visual engagement. This to me is a direct confrontation of the issue of climate change. I’m seeking answers to what seems like a shared vulnerability in a variety of different contexts; as you can see from the photographs, I’ve worked in Nigeria. I was in Nigeria in 2012 when there were massive floods. I began the project in 2007. I photographed floods in both the UK and India. In 2008, I photographed floods in Haiti. In 2010, I photographed a flood in Pakistan and in 2011, I photographed Thailand and Australia. In 2012, I photographed in Nigeria, and in 2013, Germany and the Philippines. In 2014, I repeated myself and photographed to the UK and India. In 2015, I photographed floods in Bangladesh, the United States and Brazil, and this year I photographed the floods in France.
Is this your first time in Nigeria and exhibiting at Lagos Photo?
It’s definitely the first time I’ve exhibited in Nigeria.
How do you think participating in Lagos Photo will impact your career?
I don’t know. It would be great if it would encourage other exhibitions in Nigeria, I mean I’d love to build a profile and share more work in Nigeria. I’ve heard that there’s a very interesting art scene in Nigeria. Though it sounds like it’s been a bit affected by the financial crisis, I would love to develop an engagement with the Nigerian art scene. At the moment my work has been seen in quite a few different contexts, for example I’m showing at a photo festival in Goa, India. My work was also shown at a festival in Hungary last week so it’s taken quite a global journey. In addition, I’m showing in Africa again next year in October as part of the big exhibition project at the Wits Art Museum (WAM) in Johannesburg, South Africa. It’s nice that my work is on such a global journey showing on all different continents.
Francisca Chagas dos Santos. Taquari District, Rio Blanco, Brazil
What message do you hope to pass with the work displayed at Lagos Photo?
I’m trying to avoid a simple message of rich and poor, you know, north and south. It’s more a sense of something shared, conveying a sense of our vulnerability and instability in the world.
Why did you choose floods and not fires or some other elemental disaster?
That’s a brilliant question. It’s always a huge question for me. Initially, I was trying to do a typology of different types of climate change. I started with a grant in the north of Kenya. In 2006, I heard about the flood in the drought band in the east coast of Africa, which was growing and devastating the lands of pastoral tribes. But then, there is something so powerful and iconic about the image of a flood that I decided to focus on it. It just seemed to be much more visceral. I suppose the flood is an ancient metaphor, an ancient symbol. Most religions around the world have got a story about a flood. With time, I’ve grown increasingly obsessed with floods. For me as a photographer and artist, the experience of being in a flood is visually compelling. Everything is reversed; water is where there’s meant to be land. There are also reflections of the light, which grant for a very compelling environment.
Loveday Abadida. Igbogene, Bayelsa State, Nigeria
The work that you’ve done spans various global issues, especially HIV, why do you believe that ‘Drowning World’ best fits this year’s theme of Lagos Photo?
HIV has been a huge engagement for me; I’ve been photographing HIV for the last 18 years. ‘Drowning World’ is a much more contemporary project which I’ve been working on. It’s also their curatorial choice which they think fits well with their theme. I think it fits well with the formative concept of LagosPhoto because there’s a sense in which the portraits are a kind of performance.
Do you think that you are going to start another body of work not related to climate in Nigeria?
I would love to do something in Nigeria. I think Nigeria is an amazing country and my experience here is of the two extremes; there were moments when I wanted to bash my head against the wall, I found myself so frustrated. And other times I was so inspired, I couldn’t help but be amazed by the people here. I would love to come back to Nigeria to do something. I’ve been here twice, before the floods. My trip was linked to the Millennium Development Goals and I was able to visit some communities. Nigeria is a pleasant place visually but with competing authorities, you have to be assertive to live here. Other than that, it’s a very inspiring and amazing country. I’m very disappointed that I was unable to travel for the festival as I decided to direct my resources to making new work.
image credits: http://gideonmendel.com/submerged-portraits/
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