05/10/2017 14:02 SAST | Updated 06/10/2017 06:29 SAST

SA Photographer Captures 10 Years Of Floods In 'Drowning World'

We spoke to photography legend Gideon Mendel ahead of his upcoming exhibition.

Young Asif is photographed in the town of Khairpur Nathan Shah, which was submerged by flood waters.
Gideon Mendel For Action Aid/ In Pictures/ Corbis via Getty Images
Young Asif is photographed in the town of Khairpur Nathan Shah, which was submerged by flood waters.

South Africa-born photographer Gideon Mendel has photographed flood zones around the world for the past 10 years, but photographing recent hurricanes Harvey and Irma was entirely different, he says.

Speaking to HuffPost SA ahead of his forthcoming exhibition at Wits University Museum (WAM), Mendel said he realised that extreme wealth can be as vulnerable as extreme poverty.

"I photographed some very wealthy people in their houses during the latest floods, with their possessions wallowing in water. It was different for me because it began to take the narrative away from it always being black or brown people being the subject of natural disasters." Mendel says.

"People were devastated. Wealthy, and poor."

His enormously successful series of images called "Drowning World" has been featured in major publications such as "National Geographic", exhibited in museums around the world and even used on placards during climate change protests.

"I have this strange, unusually mad impulse that draws me back to flood zones. Obviously, flooding causes huge destruction and ruins people's lives, but as an artist there is something that is extremely compelling there as well," he says.

This pic shows Ratmas Ebiarohrob, photographed in Nigeria as part of my #drowningworld project. I have just heard the news that the project has won the Greepeace Photo 2016 Jury Award. Thanks so much for all the support. This award will help me make more flood response trips and develop the project. Later this month the project will be shown at the @lagosphotofestival which I am very pleased about as it is very important to me to have the work seen in the countries where the images are made. (In November the project will be also shown at the Goa International Photo Festival and many of the impotant photographs in the project have been taken in India.) This image is a 'recent discovery' found while going back through my contact sheets. Ratmas was an a carpenter who lost all his equipment in the massive flood which devastated his community in Igbogene and huge parts of Nigeria in 2012. You can still view the short film about the project at the link in my bio above or at #gideonmendel #climatechange #greenpeacephotoaward @greenpeace #globalwarming

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"The world is turned upside down, there's chaos everywhere, something beautiful happens with light... But whenever there is a flood there is a strong impulse drawing me back there. There is just something so visceral about it, and it says a lot about our shared vulnerability as people."

Mendel emerged as a photographer for "The Star" newspaper during the apartheid years and found his passion for flood zones working on an assignment covering HIV cases on the continent.

"For many years, I was working on HIV and Aids around Africa, and the 'Drowning World' project came out of a period when I had my own young children and I started imagining the world they would live in when they were my age, but also found that there were so many problems with the imaging of climate change," he says.

"At that point, there were just so many images of polar bears and glaciers, and they didn't feature very much about the people. So I wanted to make something much more confrontational."