How do you quantify the impact of severe flooding? By water levels? In the amount of relief aid needed? In comparison to historical statistics? While these are all valid measures of a severe weather event’s effect, they hardly connect with the humanity of the situation. Beyond statistics, numbers, and reports of widespread damage are individual people, each coping with life after devastating weather.
Since 2007, London-based South African photographer Gideon Mendel has been training his lens on the survivors of floods for his Drowning World project. A commentary on the effects of global warming, Mendel aims to put a human face on devastation.
His work is now being shown in Toronto as part of the monthlong, citywide Contact Photography Festival. Mendel has been selected as the artist to appear in Contacting Toronto, an annual underground installation curated by outdoor advertising company Pattison Onestop, now in its eighth year. The exhibit places Mendel’s work throughout Queen’s Park Station, a central stop in Toronto’s subway system, and includes 26 large subway posters that line the tunnels and feature portraits of flood victims. Sixteen smaller posters line the stairwells and depict flooded homes and landscapes, and the artist’s Water videos will be playing without interruption from ads and news on Pattison Onestop digital screens throughout the entire subway system.
Sharon Switzer, Pattison Onestop’s national arts programmer and curator says she chose Mendel’s work for this exhibition because of how his images relate to Contact’s theme of identity. "I find his work incredibly powerful. Because he’s visited so many different people, his photos of people’s homes are sometimes familiar and sometimes incredibly foreign. When you look at a number of the images, it really drives home that it’s something we all have in common. Even though Gideon’s work is mostly seen as climate-change work, I also see it as representative of this idea of a shared human identity, a shared reality of being a human. The photos themselves are so easily understood. It’s a quick read, which is important for a subway."
Contacting Toronto: Drowning World is Mendel’s first major Canadian exhibition and will be on display for the entire month of May. Mendel himself will be in Toronto on May 25 to offer an on-site exhibition of the tour, followed by a panel discussion that explores the questions of human identity in relation to our place on the planet.