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These photos of flood victims tell the human story of climate change

Gideon Mendel’s photographs center the experiences of people–mainly people of color living in poverty–that are feeling climate change’s effects now.

A little more than a decade ago, when South African photographer Gideon Mendel happened to document two floods–one in the U.K., and one in India–he noticed similarities between the victims. “I was very struck by a shared vulnerability, despite the differences in culture, class, and wealth,” he says.

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He began traveling the world to show one of the impacts of climate change that is already visible: People standing half-submerged in water in their neighborhoods, or inside their flooded homes. In 2008, he traveled to Haiti. He went to Pakistan two years later, followed by Australia, Thailand, Nigeria, Germany, the Philippines, the U.K., India, Brazil, Bangladesh, and the U.S. As we spoke, he was in a car driving to South Carolina in the wake of Hurricane Florence.

In many cases, Mendel wades through flooded streets to take a photo of someone standing on their own property. “It seemed a natural thing to do, and I found it was quite powerful, visually,” he says. In each photo, people gaze straight into the camera.

Gideon Mendel’s work exhibited at climate-themed exhibition COAL + ICE in San Francisco, September 2018. [Photo: Frank Ortmanns]

“I wanted to make something where the victims of climate change are looking the viewer directly in the eye,” he says. “There was a point for me where I was researching the imagery of climate change and I felt that it was very white on many levels, and very distant–images of polar bears and glaciers and often very beautiful scenarios. I bring people into the depiction of climate change.”

In a recent exhibition in San Francisco called Coal and Ice, some of Mendel’s photos from his series, Drowning World, sat in a 50,000-square foot space surrounded by massive images of melting glaciers.

“My work is a response to that sort of work,” he says. “We’ve seen a lot of pictures of glaciers. They have a kind of beauty to them. But I think one part of the problem is that a lot of the dialogue around climate change and the organizational response is very linked to that sort of white, middle-class environmental, previously hippie eco movement. It limits its effectiveness because climate change affects a lot of people of color around the world. I really feel it needs an injection of a much more radical kind of activism.”

As temperatures rise because of climate change, more water evaporates from both the land and oceans, making heavier rain more likely. Hurricane Harvey may have dumped 38% more rain on Houston because of climate change. Early predictions suggest that the rainfall in the Carolinas because of Florence was also much heavier because of climate change. In July, historic rain killed more than 200 people in Japan and forced millions to evacuate their homes. In August, more than 300 people were killed in flooding after extreme monsoon rains in India. In low-lying coastal areas, rising sea levels also contribute to flooding; in the U.S., flooding from high tides has doubled in the last 30 years.

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“I think the impacts are going to start happening faster and faster than we expect,” says Mendel. “When I began, I was really frightened for the world my kids are going to be living in. Now I’m pretty frightened for the world which I’ll be living in.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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