Images of Climate Change That Cannot Be Missed

Mendel has a history with trauma. His family are German Jews; his father’s father died in the First Word War, and his mother in the Holocaust. The family relocated to Johannesburg, which meant he grew up in the midst of the apartheid regime, and his first big photographic projects were about its effects. He then spent two decades chronicling the AIDS crisis, turning to climate change after moving to London. When I reached him last week, he was in deep floodwater in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, in the state Rio Grande do Sul, where more than half a million people have been forced from their homes by swollen rivers. We arranged to speak the next day; he began by describing the scene in which I’d found him. “We finally got a boat about sunset,” he said, and so he was able to get to the center of Porto Alegre. “I’ve seen many floods, but this is a beautiful, lovely modern—and historic—city, and it’s completely underwater. A huge, beautiful museum, a market, all underwater. It feels like it’s a new chapter in climate-change impacts, like it’s ramping up.”

Mendel first became interested in climate change around 2007, when he started wondering about the world that his children would inhabit by mid-century. “As a photographer, I began to research some of the images people were making. This was before Instagram, so I was looking at Flickr and such, and the images were mostly polar bears and glaciers. What I felt was lacking was a visceral sense of how people were affected by climate change.” That year, floods inundated Yorkshire, England, and Mendel, working with an old Rolleiflex medium-format camera, made portraits of people in their drowned homes, some of which ran in the Guardian. A few weeks later, Mendel was on assignment in India, where large portions of Bihar State were submerged; he took some pictures and then looked at them side by side with his English portraits, noting the uncanny similarities. That observation set him off “on a mission of trying to get to flooding.” Since then, his years have been demarked by the great deluges that have become ever more frequent on an overheating earth: Haiti in 2008, Australia and Pakistan in 2010, Thailand in 2011. Plenty of photographers were documenting Sandy in New York, in 2012, so he went to Nigeria, instead; 2013 was Germany, as the Rhine overflowed; 2014 was Somerset, in England, and Srinagar, in Kashmir; 2015, “the year of the Paris summit,” found him in Brazil, Bangladesh, and the Carolinas. France flooded in 2016, and 2017 saw Hurricane Harvey, in Houston, still the American record-holder for the greatest total rainfall from a single weather event. He was beginning to work digitally and adding video to his still images; he also began branching out to document the aftermath of the enormous forest fires that had begun to rage from California and Canada to Greece. In 2022, he was back in Pakistan, for what may be the most extensive flooding recorded since Noah.

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