An emergency that’s often explained with abstract data, catastrophic predictions, and threats to the planet and its species, the climate crisis can be difficult to comprehend. For decades, warming temperatures and rising waters were largely connected to plants and animals, with imagery showing the devastation as it relates to polar bears, coral, and other threatened species. There’s been growing interest in recent years, though, in documenting the communities most profoundly affected and highlighting the human impact already underway.
Gideon Mendel, a South African photographer living in the U.K., has been taking this approach in his two companion series, Drowning World and Burning World. On view now at The Photographers’ Gallery as part of Fire / Flood, Mendel’s portraits are deeply personal, showing individuals and families in their homes and neighborhoods that have been destroyed by natural disasters. Taken in 15 countries since 2007, the collection insists on recognizing that although the regularity and intensity of wildfires, hurricanes, and other weather events are increasing, humanity has been feeling the effects of the crisis for decades.
Mendel began Drowning World first after floods overtook Doncaster, a small city in South Yorkshire. He started by photographing people partially submerged in what was left of their homes, a position that he recreated a few weeks later when visiting India. “When I got back, I put these pictures side by side, portraits from floods in the U.K, and India, and I felt like something quite strong was happening—a shared vulnerability, despite the huge differences in wealth, culture, and environment. That was the beginning of the journey for me,” he told LensCulture.
Whether captured in Haiti, Brazil, Pakistan, or France, the photos assert that no community is immune to the effects of a changing planet, although some are surely left in worse conditions. Mendel explains in a statement:
My subjects have taken the time—in a situation of great distress—to engage the camera, looking out at us from their inundated homes and devastated surroundings. They are showing the world the calamity that has befallen them. They are not victims in this exchange: the camera records their dignity and resilience. They bear witness to the brutal reality that the poorest people on the planet almost always suffer the most from climate change.
When Burning World followed in 2020, Mendel was able to compare the two types of disasters and find commonalities, most notably how his subjects unanimously found strength and endurance. He photographs each person standing upright, remaining assured amid the ruin and choosing courage over fatalism.
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