Water, our Greatest Asset and Our Greatest LIABILITY

Notes on the Gideon Mendel & Bob Self talk at MOCA Jacksonville

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On Friday, Sept. 15, the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville hosted photographers Gideon Mendel and Bob Self to discuss their work as it directly relates to Hurricane Irma.

Mendel is an internationally known and lauded photographer who has documented (among other projects) the late 1990s AIDS epidemic and violence in South Africa. His current project, Drowning World, is the photographer’s attempt to “photograph the human reality of floods,” said museum director Caitlin Doherty, who counts him as a personal friend.

Self is easily one of Jacksonville’s leading photojournalists. He’s worked at the Florida Times-Union for 33 years, and is driven by his curiosity and love of this place to document the city and the region. “Covering a storm is different when it is in your own backyard,” he said.

The lecture, Stop Press: Gideon Mendel in Conversation was hastily put together in the wakes of hurricanes Irma and Hugo. Mendel was already en route to Jacksonville when Doherty called to invite him to speak. She explained that she was “struck with the need for immediacy […] how does/can/should a museum respond to the only idea that is [currently] relevant to this community, Irma?”

“I’ve got a flight in the morning; do you have a place I could sleep?” Mendel replied.

Drowning World, said Mendel, is his attempt to do something very visceral, to “look people in the eye.” His images, for which he has three categories, Floodlines, Watermarks, and Submerged Portraits, examine distinct facets of the disaster experience: The portraits are images of people directly impacted by flood—they stand in water that's often cloudy with filth, and gaze directly back at the viewer. “I can’t bring very much to them, but a sense that their predicament has been seen and witnessed.”

Floodlines is as it seems, images of spaces that have been destroyed by water. Highly aestheticized, these images feel still but taut, as if they are holding their (non-sentient) breath. Watermarks is an ongoing collection of personal vernacular images that have been damaged and changed by floodwaters that Mendel has collected. Initially, this collection was for Mendel himself, but as the entire project developed, he decided to display them in a vitrine (with some scanned, enlarged and displayed on a wall) as a way of further witnessing these personal stories.

During the talk, he acknowledges the idea of “disaster tourism,” and his desire to be sensitive to the notion that he is in any manner capitalizing on tragedy. “I am very much amazed about what people are willing to share of their lives—and they don’t know you.”

Throughout the course of his talk, he showed published images from Drowning World and recent images that have not been released from Houston and Jacksonville (he has an exclusive contract with The Guardian for those images). Looking at them was hard but cathartic, especially video footage of a Middleburg man confronting the floor-to-ceiling ruination of his home.

When Self took the stage, he began with “You’ve seen everything before—but now it’s underwater,” and the weight of those words seemed to bear down on the listeners. He then talked about going all over the city—before and after Irma—to take photographs of the area. The audience viewed images of devastation and hope—and they were familiar: Clark’s Fish Camp, where the water line was 43 inches from the floor; the Humane Society evacuating animals; and a football field which had weathered the storm with minor damage and already had players again practicing there.

Taken together, Mendel’s works beside Self’s, the images present a strong case for greater stewardship of the environment. They are like a wholly complete story, where the lesson is obvious: Climate change is real and it devastates real people.

See some of the Drowning series here.

See some of Self's Jacksonville images here.

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