Jacksonville’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) will be hosting Drowning World from world-renowned photographer Gideon Mendel. The series features photographs he’s captured from around the world of floods and the people affected by them, including some from locals in Jacksonville and Middleburg after Hurricane Irma hit the First Coast, which he did as part of his winning the Jury Prize of the 2016 Greenpeace Photo Awards. I spoke to him to learn more about his work and his hopes for the reception of the exhibition.
What led you to this photo series? Why did you choose flooding?
The project emerged 11 years ago at a time when I had young children, and I was trying to do a mental exercise of when they are my age, what will the world look like. I was concerned about global warming and climate change and the images used on the issue. I felt that they were very distancing. I saw a lot of images of polar bears and glaciers, but not very many of people. I set about to do something which is kind of visceral which really shows the faces, the eyes, the people who are dealing with climate disasters. I wanted to make it very in-your-face. The central narrative of Drowning World is a series I call ‘Submerged Portraits,’ people in their flooded homes and flooded communities. It’s quite disconcerting for the viewers because the images are quite conventional portraits but in a hectic and extreme environment.
So why did you choose Jacksonville and the aftermath of Florida in your series?
I was in Houston last year. I travelled there to photograph the impacts of Hurricane Harvey. There was a lot of fear in the media about the impending approach of Hurricane Irma. I had already an interesting connection with Caitlín Doherty who is the Director of MOCA; I did a project with her when she was the acting Director of the Broad Museum in Michigan at MSU. So when Jacksonville was being threatened by flooding, she invited me here to photograph and gave me support and connections to people who could help me. I managed to fly into Jacksonville, and I was slightly in the aftermath of the floods here, but I did a day’s work in Jacksonville, and then I spent a day photographing in Middleburg as the whole Black Creek area had been devastated. It was completely underwater.
How was your experience in Jacksonville and dealing with the different subjects?
People were very warm and very responsive to what I was doing. People were pretty keen to be photographed, and, in a sense, show the world what had happened to them. I had a very particular engagement with with Terrence McKeen and his mother Gloria in Middleburg. They, in a way, are kind of the centerpiece of the exhibition. Their home was underwater, and when I arrived in Middleburg I joined them [in] trying to get through the water to see what had happened to their home. I witnessed Terrence, who on the outside looks like quite a tough guy, but, I went into his home with him, and he just burst into tears. Everything he had seemed completely destroyed. It was quite a profound experience witnessing his discovery of that.
Have the subjects that you photographed in Jacksonville seen the photos and what will be displayed in MOCA?
At the time, I sent everyone the photographs. We are hoping that a lot of the people who were photographed will be coming to the exhibition opening. It’s very important for me in my work to maintain a connection if possible with the people I photograph. I think the opening will be quite a profound event, particularly having Terrance and his mother coming along.
There was another family, Chuck and Mary Highhouse, who I met in that area as well. The water had receded from their home, but they had a lot of possessions. She is a former school teacher, and there was a whole team of her ex pupils and colleagues, about 30 people, laying out her photographs, drying out her possessions. It was quite amazing to see that incredible support of her community and the help she was getting from the people who knew her.
When you are choosing locations for the series, does it occur to you to go to places where the consensus isn’t so progressive on combating climate change?
I don’t plan my locations in that sense. Obviously, in America for some reason, climate change has been cast as a debate. I try to avoid getting into that argument and that dialogue. For me, it isn’t a debate at all. I certainly wasn’t trying to say, ‘this is an area where a lot of people deny climate change, we’ll see how it feels when they are affected.’ There was nothing remotely like that going on for me when I chose and respond to areas.
For many, climate change seems unfathomable. How do you think your photos help push that understanding and put it into perspective?
I think part of my mission is to set up a kind of global discussion and dialogue. Putting images from all over the world side-by-side is a part of it. What’s important to me is avoiding the conventional narrative of disaster is something that is happening far away to black or brown people, the conventional thinking of the pathetic Third World facing disaster. It’s important to me to have a mixture of people, culture, nationality and class included. I photograph people living in the poorest tin shacks in Bangladesh and people living in multi-million dollar houses in Texas. Despite the incredible differences, there is also a shared vulnerability and some kind of connection through the flood water. The newest iteration of the project which we are launching for the first time in Jacksonville is a new, multichannel video piece I’ve made called ‘Deluge’. It’s a piece which positions individual stories within a global narrative. There are different screens from across the world that are shown simultaneously. I think a lot of people respond to that very, very strongly. It’s a very hard thing to get across, and it’s quite a complex piece, and I hope it will go a little bit of the way to doing that.
I don’t necessarily feel that I want to prescribe a response or analysis. I’d like to think someone who is a climate change activist and someone who is a climate change denialist would both get a lot from the experience of seeing my exhibition. I don’t want it to be something that is purely preaching to the converted.
Have the photos from the Jacksonville series been displayed anywhere else?
Yes, they have. Certainly the photos from Middleburg. In the series I have a kind of small roster of a-list pictures, and the portrait of Terrence McKeen and his mother Gloria has joined it. That’s already been shown in two exhibitions I’ve had in Germany, an exhibition in Kyoto, Japan, and a pending exhibition in Sweden and one in Casablanca coming up shortly.