Photographer and activist Gideon Mendel
South African photo-journalist Gideon Mendel has been travelling the world documenting humanitarian crises and conflicts from apartheid in South Africa, the impact of HIV/AIDS in A Broken Landscape: HIV & AIDS in Africa, homelessness in the UK, to the effects of global warming as seen in his Drowning World series, and the current refugee crisis. But what sets Gideon apart from others in his field is that he takes on a multi-disciplinary approach in a time when photography falls short before the complexity of the issues. How do you transmit the struggles of refugees, their lives within ephemeral camps on the verge of ruin without entering into territory of objectification and voyeurism? By transcending the field of photography itself. Gideon uses a combination between portraiture, and archival work displayed via installations that bring to mind archeological processes to convey an extremely visceral message that strikes a deep chord within viewers.
The effectiveness of his intimate art holds enormous potentially within greater humanitarian movements, and has earned him international praise with a breadth of accolades and awards including the Eugene Smith Award for Humanistic Photography, six World Press Photo Awards, winner of the Pictures of the Year competition, POY Canon Photo Essayist Award, the Amnesty International Media Award for Photojournalism, and the most recent of which was the Pollock Prize for Creativity. His work has been featured in leading magazines including National Geographic, Fortune Magazine, Condé Nast Traveller, Geo, The Independent Magazine, The Guardian Weekend magazine, The Sunday Times magazine, L’Express, Stern and Rolling Stone magazine.
We met up with Gideon at Somerset House in London for 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair along with his curator Dr. Gary van Wyk. van Wyk, who co-founded Axis Gallery with his wife, Lisa Brittan to stage neglected aspects of African Art, and has had an equally impressive career in the intersection between art world and humanitarian efforts.
We engaged in an aboslutely fascinating conversation about what went into Gideon’s latest installation work, the stories behind his photographs, the future of photo-journalism and more…
“I try to find unique ways of telling stories and I hope that it gets through to people and has an impact on the world. I want to make images that are tools of visual accuracy, tools which can actually do something right in the world.” Gideon Mendel
CM: Tell us about your work? Is it art? photo-journalism?
Gideon: It’s a strange thing with those pigeon holes. I think people want to put you into one. And my work has always had a strong message since the beginning of my career. I began as a news photographer during apartheid in South Africa. I came of age as a photographer during a time of very strong issues between right and wrong… black and white… I think I have always tried to make work that addresses the key issues of our time, and at the start, my strategy was very much traditional photography. In a certain way, I think I was lucky enough to work through the last decade of photo-journalism, in the 1990s, and I suppose I was a magazine photographer and in many ways photo journalism has lost its way. I am not trying to redefine myself as an artist, but I do find that the arena of the art world gives me a lot more room to do what I need to say. Perhaps the world of traditional documentary photo journalism has felt too constrained for me.
Gary: I think that to split photography into art and not art is a little artificial. Photography is painting with light and since the beginning of modernism, painters have always been engaged with social images. If you think of Gustav Courbet or many others–even the impressionists–the painting of people at leisure was very political, because the leisure of the public had never been painted before. And that’s not very far from street photography. So if impressionism can be art, I don’t see the difference… Gustav Courbet painting peasants or painting history, why is that any different from photographers shooting history in action. And this is really the trajectory that Gideon has taken and first of all really photographing history in action during Apartheid, and he still looking at social issues but choosing slightly different genres, mostly photographic up until now, until finally he reached a point where he is considering issues of failure of photography, when the social condition is so enormous, like the refugee crisis.
“In a way, an archaeologist finds objects and tries to understand society from those objects, and for me it was a similar kind of process figuring out what I can say about the place. You can never photographed a child there, I wouldn't want to photograph them and there are about 1000 children there, but actually finding a doll and taking a photograph of that doll, speaks of those things.” Gideon Mendel
CM: What made you think of converting from photography to installation work for dealing with the refugee crisis?
Gideon: It arose from a sense of huge frustration. When I was working in the jungle camp, photography felt like the wrong thing to be doing. I was part of an attempt to do a collaborative photographic project with the Centre for Narrative Research with the University of East London, with the standard philosophy that it would be more interesting to get migrants to photograph themselves than have photographers come in, so I spent some time in the camp working with a group of people, and I slowly realised that the project was misconceived because the migrants there were generally not proud of the life they were living and didn't have an impulse to photograph themselves. And there’s also a huge suspicion around photography, and because there are no gate keepers in the place, there are so many photographers that go in there all the time, so anyone can arrive and take pictures.
I had an experience one day where I was quite upset because as I mentioned, a lot of people left in the workshop did not show up, and I was at a school at the North side of the camp which was to be demolished. The school still standing, but everything around it was a wasteland of demolished shacks. Only one person showed up out of 12, and he went off to do the workshop, and I was left just guarding our laptops. I began to look at the stuff and try to make sense of it and all that garbage, and I started collecting things and organising them into different genres so that I can make different things from it… Toiletries, teargas canisters, shotgun casings, which I thought was from a conflict with the police but then the locals said that the police never fired shotguns and then I found out that they were from an earlier faze of violence, and they gave me a sense of the kind of archaeology of objects from different periods and with things moving so quickly, it almost became like taking on the role of a contemporary archaeologist before all the years of sedimentation would come on top.
In a way, an archaeologist finds objects and tries to understand society from those objects, and for me it was a similar kind of process figuring out what I can say about the place. You can never photographed a child there, I wouldn't want to photograph them and there are about 1000 children there, but actually finding a doll and taking a photograph of that doll, speaks of those things. Amongst all the wreckage, finding a used tampon, that for me speaks about all the many women there. So I had these objects that to me had an almost radioactive power.
Gary: The African way at looking at object-hood is quite different from western perspectives. Africa will take these objects because they can feel someone’s spiritual power and the human energy which is attached to those objects and that is actually what they manipulate and what they revolve their psychic powers around. For me, this kind of archaeology is also related to African processes of collecting objects that are imbued with human spiritual power.
CM: Can you specifically tell us about the exhibit installation? How people reacted to it?
Gideon: This project has two divergent stances for me. One is making physical objects and installations of things I have found and there's something about being able to look at individual toothbrushes and see the real things, which hits people quite deeply and people can feel it very strongly.
Gary: It's only been on show for a few hours, but I think people have a strong reaction from the visceral objects, and of all the galleries showing here, the financial times on Sunday chose three images to publish, and one of them was the toothbrush piece, so it immediately tells me that it has outstanding visual power.
Gideon: And it comes strangely from an empty photographic impulse. From when you felt like photography was the wrong thing to do. I debated what to do with these objects, and I spent a lot of time testing various ways to photograph them, and I thought I need to photograph them against authentic backgrounds so I went back to the jungle and collected a lot of sand and materials that I thought might make for interesting backdrops. After all the testing I found that they were distracting and last weekend we went to a proper studio and worked with a large format camera to make almost scientific photographs of objects.
Gary: I think that when you look at the photograph that Gideon has taken of the objects, of those toothbrushes there, and then he took them into the studio and went through this very technical process iconising those objects that have been casually arranged, and then when you look at the toothbrushes on the black background versus the toothbrushes on the white background, the very same ones that are in that installation, they suddenly become elevated and removed. There is a frightening analytical accuracy to the way that it is looked at, so just as his other photos of violence and resistance, these are evidence of action. Apart from showing actual toothbrushes but making them into photographs, I move them into this evidentiary category, so I think they work in both ways. The visual contact with the physical and spiritual presence of the object is one thing and then as a kind of cool, evidentiary objects, juxtaposed one black and one white. It’s a very potent expression of opposition and distance.
CM: What is the future of photojournalism and journalism?
Gideon: I think the world as it is at the moment is a very interesting place to be working visually. I think a lot of the young photographers I know are finding new strategies to represent the world, and I do think that photo journalism and documentary is a very tired medium at the moment and it needs rejuvenation. Many ways I am at the heart a documentary photographer–that’s where I come from and what I have spent many years doing–but I feel for myself that I'm very excited about finding different kinds of conceptual approaches. At the same time I'm not trying to define myself as an artist who just does a static, beautiful things. It’s a way to almost be more political and to say things more deeply.
Gary: We actually met many years ago. We were in our early 20’s, and neither of us had become artists, Gideon didn't even have a camera at that time, and we were in a very wild place called the Wild Coast in South Africa. We were on this deserted beach by this very wild river that went to the sea and there were these fat, massive tree trunks scattered on the beach and we were making sculptures out of the driftwood and that's actually how we met and became friends. But we didn't see each other for many years until last year when we were exhibiting here at Somerset House and Gideon came to show his Drowning World series, which I found very powerful. And actually in that work, I can see the same artistic impulses that Gideon and I had when we were young, when neither of us operated in the art world. Now all these years have passed and both of us are solidly inside it.
CM: Would you say you are an explorer?
Gideon: I like to find new ways of telling stories. For me the submerged portrait series takes imagery of climate change to a different place. It was at a time, in 2007, when I felt the importance of climate change but the photographs were mainly of beautiful glaciers and polar bears… imagery that felt very remote. I wanted to find a way to make images about climate change but which would look at the issue very directly. It was a very particular strategy and this idea of doing portraits and water was a crazy idea but it sort of seemed to get through to people. The people is what makes it personal. I try to find unique ways of telling stories and I hope that it gets through to people and has an impact on the world. I want to make images that are tools of visual accuracy, tools which can actually do something right in the world.
CM: What is your greatest achievement in terms of personal fulfilment from your work?
Gideon: I think when your work is part of a movement, it's hard to know what impact it has. When speaking of the AIDS crisis, I don't know if it had an impact, but it was part of larger forces that had an impact in the world to bring AIDS treatment Africa, and there was a huge change of policy and global change of policy which helped. And my work was also part of the movement against apartheid and at the moment the fight against climate change is so difficult and who knows what impact it will have. Over the years, I've been published in many magazines from National Geographic and have won many different awards, but the most important thing–as I said–is that I feel successful when I actually change the world.
CM: As a curator how do you choose your artists?
Gary: We come from the same background; I was also an artist working against apartheid, trained as an artist and an art historian, and both my partner Lisa Brittan and I also trained as artists. We have very high standards in terms of what we expect: we expect art that is meaningful, that is deep, and that is also visually compelling and well executed. We have many more artists who would like to work with us that we could possibly manage, so another important element is also choosing what sort of people we want to work with in our lives.
CM: Who buys your art?
We have a very serious program and our most important clients are museums and major institutional collections all over the world and that has always been cornerstone since we started in 1997. But of course those institutional collections also prompts purchases by private collectors. The smartest collectors are the ones that admire the work of great art generators and institutions and respect the intellectual working vision behind them.
Photo © Gideon Mendel
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