The historic deluge that flooded South Carolina in October submerged entire neighborhoods. As Hurricane Joaquin sailed by the East Coast, the rain grew so intense that it busted more than 10 dams, sending water surging downstream. The floods caused billions of dollars of damage in the state and left 19 people dead.
As the water started to subside, it left the neighborhood where Deborah Caulder of Columbia, S.C., grew up looking like “a war zone,” she said.
When Caulder returned to her childhood home, she found the ceilings caving in. The refrigerator was turned upside down. The washing machine was outside, on the other side of the house. The whole place smelled, since the water was tainted by sewage. And people around the neighborhood were shoveling stuff out of their houses, and picking through piles of furniture, photographs and clothing in their front yards.
“It was chaos,” Caulder said.
As the family was sorting through photographs, spreading them out over the backyard to dry them, a photographer, Gideon Mendel, came over to help them. Mendel, a South African photographer whose work focuses on flood-damaged areas, had flown into Columbia to take portraits and gather water-damaged photographs for his long-running photo project, "Drowning World."
Caulder came across a photograph of herself in her high school graduation cap and gown in 1984, and gave it to the photographer for his collection. That photo will be on display this summer at the Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, the first solo exhibition of Mendel’s “Drowning World” in the United States.
“Drowning World” — a photo series that includes portraits of flood survivors, their homes and their photographs in Thailand, Nigeria, the United States, Britain, India and elsewhere – occupies what Mendel calls a “hazy middle ground between documentary and art, with a bit of activism thrown in.”
The series is meant to show the dramatic ways that climate change is changing people's lives around the world. Mendel says it aims to correct what he sees as a problematic image of climate change. When most people think of climate change, they picture remote glaciers melting, or stranded polar bears, he says — not the people who are already being affected.
Yet some of the most harmful effects of climate change have been rising sea levels, more intense floods and droughts, and stronger, more erratic storms. These are among the reasons why climate change may displace 200 million people by 2050, according to estimates cited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Mendel has been working on the photo project since 2007, when he photographed a flood in Britain and a flood in India that occurred within weeks of each other. The backbone of the project is his “Submerged” portraits, in which he photographs people standing in the floodwater, usually in their own home.
Along the way, Mendel has developed other related series of photographs, including "Floodlines," photos which show the line of residue left behind by floodwater. In the Michigan exhibition, Mendel includes more of another series called "Watermarks," consisting of flood-damaged photographs that Mendel collected over many years. He scans the found photos and reprints them on a large scale, to amplify the scratches and smears created by the floodwater.
Mendel also shot a short film called "The Water Chapters" to accompany the project, in which he shows some of the deluged areas he has visited, and some people posing for the still portraits above.
I asked Mendel whether it was repulsive to shoot in several feet of water, much of which must be dirty and smelly. But he remarked that, as a photographer, he is drawn to such a visually compelling environment, where images and light are reflected off the water, and life seems to be inverted.
“It’s a landscape I’m very drawn to. If there’s a major flood happening, I always have an itch to be there,” he says.
Mendel says his work does have a strong message: He has children and he’s concerned about the world they and his grandchildren might live in. But he also says he’s not preaching. He’s proud that "Drowning World" has been embraced by activists, for example, displayed in protests around the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, but that it has also appeared in the magazines, museums and galleries.
Mendel recalled some of the individuals he met in flooded areas who affected him most. One was Shirley Armitage, a woman whose Somerset, England, home was visited by two serious floods within several years.
Armitage’s house flooded the previous year and taken eight months to repair. But when she left her house the second time, the water was only two inches high. She left a box of photographs on the table to keep it safe, but the water knocked the box over, and her precious photographs were submerged.
When Mendel returned with Armitage to the house, she had no expectations the water would be as remotely as high as it was, he says. “I followed her into the house, and it was horrifying for her. Can you imagine entering your home, and the house is full of chest-high water?”
Another of Mendel’s most memorable portrait subjects was Florence Abraham, a capable and comparatively well off Nigerian woman. Abraham owned a bakery that employed dozens of people. “She had no insurance. She took me to her factory, which was in the back of a house. Her ovens were destroyed, her flour stocks were destroyed,” Mendel said.
Mendel was offering the Nigerians he took portraits of a fee of $30, since many of the local people were in dire situations after the flood. But Abraham refused the fee. “She said I don’t want your money, I want you to show people what’s happened to me,” Mendel said.
“Gideon Mendel: Drowning World” will appear at Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum from May 13 to October 16.
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