Current Feature: Gideon Mendel
AB: Congratulations on a Drowning World. As soon as I saw it, I had to reach out to you. I’d like to know your beginnings, when did you know you wanted to be a photographer?
GM: A really long time ago, in the early 80’s. I began working professionally at the end of 1983.
AB: Did you have any art education? What led you to photography?
GM: I have a degree in African economic history and psychology, and not very distinguished degrees either. Photography started as a hobby and became an obsession, kind of like a river that I fell into. In 1983, I spent a few months in the darkroom learning the early system with Ansel Adam’s book. I’m a completely self-taught photographer.
AB: Using a Rolleiflex camera to photograph in a Drowning World, doesn’t that make things more difficult for you traveling around with film?
GM: It is a completely ludicrous and idiotic thing to do. But it’s a weird thing because when I first began the project in 2007, you could argue that working with a Rolleiflex gives you a better quality of file compared to working on 35mm or digital. Progressively, digital files and cameras are so good now, so there’s less and less obvious reasons. But there’s something very special and magical about the Rolleiflex.
AB: I understand, I used to work with Richard Avedon and that’s all he used.
GM: I sort of been grappling with the thing. When there were major floods in New York and England last year, I went up as an experiment to work digitally and the portraits were just not as strong even though they were technically efficient. On one level, there’s the theatre of operating with film and the Rolleiflex camera. While an old camera, it slows it down and makes it more difficult, it adds a little more to the theatre in terms of engaging with your subject. But also using it at your waist, there’s no camera between your face and the person being photographed, which to me it makes it more of an intimate connection.
AB: Yes it does.
GM: I’m looking at someone, looking very carefully at the expression of their eyes. And I’m looking at them partially through the camera and not through the camera. The key thing for me in this kind of portraiture is getting the expression and kind of meaningful connection. That connected moment is what is so important to me.
AB: In the Drowning World, you’re not present when the flood occurs correct?
GM: Yes. I kind of get there in the aftermath. Certain kinds of floods work better than others. When I have the resources and the funds to travel, I’m on the phone trying to do research to figure out how long the flood water is going to last. Am I going to be too late? Because I want to get there when the water is still relatively high. I have to find out if the water is still there or if it will last. I’m trying very hard to get all this information before I travel. With the types of floods that happen in America, the water tends to move away rather quickly. I went to a flood in South Carolina last year which was devastating to Columbia but by the time I got there, the water had pretty much left and it was just the aftermath. But the water was moving so I was able to find flood communities further down the river. Sometimes it’s that kind of pacing of things. Floods in India usually last for a long time. Like in Nigeria, I was able to make my trip there in time and still find communities under water. It’s really a matter of research and time and sometimes I make huge trips across the world and end up getting there too late.
AB: Given that you photograph the floods in different places, are people more receptive to you in some locals than others? Let’s say like Americans versus Indians.
GM: There’s a difference in lesser developed countries and more developed countries, as sometimes people are more suspicious. I tell people what I do and frequently they whip out their phones and they Google my project to decide if they want anything to do with it. When I’m part of a whole gathering of media, people don’t really respond well. They proceed to react to all the media being vultures.
AB: When you go to a place where it is flooded, how do you choose your people? How do you approach your people or find them if you don’t know anyone there?
GM: Completely random and a matter of circumstance. You find people, you speak to them and see if they are willing to be photographed. In some situations, I’ve found people outside of the area and we travel back to their home on a boat and sometimes there’s quite complicated research. In Nigeria, there was this camp for people outside of the town where the flooding was and I met people there and they took me back to their homes. When I was in Brazil, a lot of people went back to their homes after the flooding had gone down and they used the flood water to clean the mud and dirt off their homes. So a lot of people were in their homes and I could approach them there. I think people are generally, for the most part, open to doing this. When there’s water in your home there’s not much you can do, but as soon as the water is gone, there’s so much you have to be doing and don’t have a moment to spare. While the water is there, it’s kind of a suspended moment and it’s a space that I look into. People keep asking why I go back to these flooded areas, and for me there’s something about a flooded city or a flooded community that I find very compelling, something about the lights, the reflection, and the color and a sense of things being reversed. There’s water where there’s not meant to be water, and it’s a very weird place. There’s a lot of solidarity amongst the people and they often tend to be very open.
AB: I had read that you considered yourself at one time a “photojournalist” but then you wanted to start manipulating the photographs so you went from black and white to color. For activism, you thought color works better and I’m wondering why that is?
GM: I had an exhibition at a national gallery in Africa around 2001-2002 that I tied into the national campaign for AIDs treatments, and the black and white work was quite a strong exhibition of black and white photojournalism. It was painful for the people who were dealing with the diseases themselves. It’s distancing whereas color felt much more approachable and a much better tool for being able to change the situation there. I suppose it turns photography into a tool of visual activism at that point in time.
AB: Do you ever think images from photojournalism can be considered art? What’s the difference between being a photojournalist and being a fine art photographer in your opinion?
GM: That’s something people have been debating for a while. The analogy I draw is with the American embassy in Saigon. Do you remember those images of the helicopter leaving the rooftop of the embassy and everyone trying to climb up? Every single photojournalist was trying to climb onto the helicopter. Photojournalism is such a mess and was the solution to the people who could never really find themselves as artists’ and their career problems.
AB: In what way? Recently, and I’m sure you’re aware of this, brouhaha was made over someone who’s considered a really well known photojournalist and he changed the color of what somebody was wearing in the photograph.
GM: Steve McCurry?
AB: Yes, everyone thought that was terrible.
GM: I think the point is that if you’re putting images into the newspaper and into the media, they are on some level this premise on the idea of what your truth of a situation is. In that context, it’s alright if you’re going to physically manipulate the colors or objects or physically remove something because once you’re starting what’s the limits? I think photographers working in newspapers and media are very different from the art context and for me in situations my photography is very different in the art context than in the media context.
AB: I was curious as to how you feel about this.
GM: If I’m looking at a magazine or a newspaper and I see a photograph, I’d like to believe that it is an attempt at a truthful reproduction of that situation. Just as much as you’d want a written article to be a truthful reproduction. You need to state to people that a situation or photograph has been deliberately changed to make it more attractive and let them know in the media’s journalistic practice. There is a lot of debate about photography and art and a lot of photographers and photojournalists have been making very strong attempts to redefine themselves as artists recently. In some cases, I think it works very well and in other cases I think it feels artificial. It can be a strategic response to the practice. Photojournalism has become a mess in many ways, it has become harder and harder for photojournalists to make a living; journalism is a state of mind. For a long time I’ve always tried to use a lot of art concepts in my photojournalism and I’m quite proud of the fact that my work seems to have that and speaks well in a variety of different contexts. My Drowning World project has had a long and effective life in the media. It’s been published in the Guardian magazine, National Geographic. It’s been published in a number of serious magazines and newspapers and continues to be. It’s also been used in the activism world. It’s been used in a variety of protests and been part of time and change activism and that’s very important to me. And increasingly additionally been active in the art world in a variety of art contexts which I’m quite excited by.