• January 15, 2015

Gideon Mendel’s Portraits From a Drowning World

Since 2007 Gideon Mendel has been strapping on waders, flagging down boats, and taking his Rolleiflex film camera into floodwaters around the world. His ongoing project, “Drowning World,” features seemingly serene portraits of flood victims in unexpected places. The project is Mendel’s personal response to climate change, taking viewers beyond statistics and into the experiences of the people directly affected by the floods.

Picture of Mohammad Younus Khosa, Raj Bagh, Srinagar, Kashmir, India, October 2014
Mohammad Younus Khosa, Raj Bagh, Srinagar, Kashmir, India, October 2014

Inspired by the powerful, almost biblical, symbolism of the flood, Mendel’s signature style is to make still and video portraits of people in their submerged environments. The victims often appear stoic, paralyzed, and numb. Yet, Mendel says, they often tell him they are grateful to have him bear witness.

“I sense an almost shared vulnerability across cultures, across nations, across all these different countries,” he says. “When I look at people’s faces through the ground glass of the Rolleiflex, there’s always something quite vulnerable and fragile there.”

Picture of Ahmad Wani Mushaq and Shafeeqa Mushtaq, Jawahar Nagar, Srinagar, Kashmir, India, October 2014
Ahmad Wani Mushaq and Shafeeqa Mushtaq, Jawahar Nagar, Srinagar, Kashmir, India, October 2014

His portraits seem to reflect a deep intimacy despite his having met most of his subjects only moments before. He often works with a fixer, or assistant, who helps him communicate with local people and carry gear. And he continues to shoot 120mm film, despite, he says, other photographers telling him he’s crazy.

“Shooting digitally would make life much, much easier. But I think with my film pictures there’s a kind of magic which happens out of making things so difficult for myself. It’s a completely self-imposed set of rules, but sometimes I find it helpful to have your own rules no matter how crazy they seem to other people.”

Photograph by Gowhar Fazili
Gideon Mendel works in Srinigar, India.
Photograph by Gowhar Fazili

Mendel has made flood portraits in eight different countries, and last October he returned to India, where he had first photographed flood victims in 2007. This time, the Jhelum River in Kashmir overspilled its banks after torrential rains, submerging the city of Srinigar under more than 12 feet of water. More than 500 people across India and Pakistan died in related flooding.

Mendel arrived two weeks after the initial torrent. Most of the water had left rural towns and villages, but Srinigar was still under water. With no hotels or restaurants available, he stayed with the family of his local fixer, Gowhar Fazili, who turned out to be both an amateur photographer and a Kashmiri sociologist.

Picture of Jawahar Nagar, Srinagar, Kashmir, India, October 2014
Jawahar Nagar, Srinagar, Kashmir, India, October 2014

Mendel says photographing in Srinigar was somewhat different than other flood zones he’s worked in, as the city is home to a range of social classes. He photographed both the well-off and the poor—both groups equally confounded by the catastrophe, with many people complaining that they didn’t get enough warning from local authorities before the flood.

“With floods I’ve often experienced a huge anger with the authorities—it’s a common theme—and people in Kashmir were furious with the government,” he says. “Most people I spoke to had 20 minutes or half an hour to flee their houses.”

As a result, most people weren’t able to save valuables from their old mud homes, many of which were completely destroyed.

Picture of Jameela Khan, Bemina, Srinagar, Kashmir, India, October 2014
Jameela Khan, Bemina, Srinagar, Kashmir, India, October 2014

While not a typical documentary videographer, Mendel captured unique footage of a couple in Srinigar who were returning to their home for the first time, 20 days after the flooding. Because the water was so high—in some cases up to their necks—Mendel only carried a small Sony video camera as he accompanied Syed and Saba Makeba through the floodwaters, experiencing the discovery of their disaster along with them. (He had accidentally submerged his brand-new Canon 5D Mark III a few days prior.)

Watch as Syed and Saba Makeba discover their flooded home. Video by Gideon Mendel.

Mendel walked with them for more than a mile as they made their way through their gate, past flooded cars, and finally into their mud-filled home.

“When they first saw the house it looked intact, but when they got inside it was clear how incredibly damaged everything was,” he says. “It was a really poignant experience going into the home with them.”

Picture of Ishfaq Ahmad Bhat, Raj Bagh, Srinagar, Kashmir, India, October 2014
Ishfaq Ahmad Bhat, Raj Bagh, Srinagar, Kashmir, India, October 2014

Ultimately, through his portraits, Mendel is trying to tell a larger story about climate change by asking us to see ourselves in each victim. He asks us to stare into their eyes and realize that any one of them could be us.

“Although there are many different factors that go into it, I do see [flooding] very much as a result of climate change, and I’m absolutely, one thousand percent certain that climate change is an immense problem and a huge challenge to us, to our children, and to our children’s generations,” he says.

“My photographs are a very small reflection of the many floods around the world that have had a huge impact on so many lives.”


Gideon Mendel got his start photographing the struggle against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s. For more than 20 years he has focused on global issues related to HIV/AIDS, founding the collaborative project Through Positive Eyes. He has been working on “Drowning World” since 2007 and was assisted in Srinigar, India, by Gowhar Fazili and Dayan Malik.

An essay and images from “Drowning World” are featured in the February issue of National Geographic. See more of Mendel’s work at gideonmendel.com and on Instagram.

There are 42 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. DTJ
    February 4, 2015

    Yes, follow the money – the scientists do not receive money for “solutions” – they receive grant money to “study” the problem. Climate change has been occurring since our world was created, and will continue occurring long after humanity is gone. I am more afraid of the unintended consequences of the scientists’ “solutions” than I am of the changes themselves. Why is it that no one speaks to the biggest problem facing humanity? It is not “climate change” – it is overpopulation.

  2. Capt. P J Walsh
    January 31, 2015

    If everyone is so concerned about GW, then how about this; instead of imposing more regulations on nations that are doing a good job, lets help and sell the technology to nations that have issues and get them to our standards. Then check to see if there is continued change. Additionally, I think the “follow the money” is valid, it is lining someones pocket. Just think how the economy of nations that sell their clean technology would benefit. The USA has so many regulations now that drive up the costs of everything for a benefit that is so small compared…shameful! The clean air act worked and did a relatively large improvement, look at Los Angeles. Look how the last winter storm was supposed to drop on the eastern seaboard…it didn’t do that much. That was a model error, just think can there be errors in the research about GW/ClimChng? YES! So the liberal folks need to look at what might be be better for the world by getting the world’s pollution causing nations to get with the program…get everyone on the right track, not just the nations that are doing well. All the volcanic activity in the last few centuries has contributed more pollution issue to the world than all of mankind’s influences.

  3. Hayley
    January 30, 2015

    People keep saying “oh, climate change is a hoax so the scientists promoting it get more money”, but that doesnt even make sense. You dont get money from developing sustainable solutions as they are often more expensive than conventional ones. Also, people keep referring to points in history as also having harsh weather, but I should remind you that the 1800’s experience the “Little Ice Age” which accounted for the extreme weather conditions. What we’re seeing now is unprecedented, erratic weather worldwide, changing faster than it ever has in the history of the earth. I understand the natural variation excuse, but variations like that occur over hundreds of years, not a few decades.

  4. lakshmi sreekumar
    January 29, 2015

    Man as a partner and not as a master should thrive among fellow beings. Surely we are ignoring the fact that most of the global warming is being caused by developed countries.

  5. kenstar23
    January 28, 2015

    “Global warming” is being promoted primarily by those who would benefit by a common belief that man is the primary cause of this phenomenon. The climate of the earth is constantly changing…sometines imperceptibly and sometimes more rapidly. It has done so for millions of years. I wish we could take all the money being wasted on this hoax and direct it to providing a cure for cancer or stopping malaria and other diseases that kill millions of people all over the world each year.

  6. Mehreen Jalib
    January 27, 2015

    Thanks Gideon for reaching out there .it reminds me of the pain we were going through sitting in Dubai and knowing nothing about our loved ones back home .it is heartbreaking every time I see anything related to the catastrophic flood .co incidentally the video that u have shot features my cousin Saba n her husband .the ruins of this flood will never be settled .it shook every Kashmiris from inside .Now that every one back home is trying to gather the broken pieces of the life they had built for generations someone like me sitting away from home can just pray that My Kashmir heals up from the wounds of monther nature .AMEEN

  7. FRED
    January 27, 2015

    you don’t to go to India for photos like this. Just look at Calgary and High River. When the flood comes the flood comes. Global warming is a hoax, like the lady says “Follow the money”

  8. Dr Quentin Farmar-Bowers
    January 26, 2015

    Personal stories and pictures bring the reality home. Great work, now it’s up to us all to encourage governments to do a good job in Paris this year and set a global course for climate change mitigation. Without that global agreement floods will get deeper and more frequent.

  9. Rosella A Alm
    January 26, 2015

    Thanks to Gideon Mendel and other historians like him who will record and help the world remember these disasters. Mr. Mendel depicts the human side of the flood, and the innate dignity of the people faced with it. Thank you sir.

  10. Shernette
    January 26, 2015

    I must say that Mendel acheived his purpose. In that with every photo I saw myself and asked myself what would or could I do if that home was mine.

  11. Martin Kral
    January 26, 2015

    These are beautiful pictures. Have you looked at some of the same pictures from the 1850’s. Take a look at the history of photography and you will see the same harsh climate at work then as well.

  12. Deborah Wilson
    January 26, 2015

    Humans are not causing climate change

  13. carl r. jaeger
    January 26, 2015

    Population explosion is the ultimate cause of mother earth in turmoil. If we do not control our lust, mother nature will ultimately cull our ranks through natural disasters. This is the inconvenient truth.

  14. Ancient archaeologist
    January 26, 2015

    Droughts is likely in coming years – prepare for water conservation for crops

  15. Tahir Qazi
    January 26, 2015

    The September 2014 floods in Kashmir were a disaster of unimaginable magnitude. For an economy with an annual GDP of $12B, the local government estimates losses to be about $16B. Imagine that happening to any other economy in the world! The local economy is crippled. People need help. Please visit http://revivekashmir.org to find how you can help. And yes, man made activity has a lot to do with these floods. There has been massive deforestation in the area in the last 60 years. This coupled with rampant and unplanned construction and clogged waterways has created a dangerous situation. There is no doubt that precipitation patterns have become more erratic in that part of the world due to erratic temperature patterns. Kashmir is my first home and it is heartbreaking to see this happening to such a beautiful place on Earth. With tons of data that suggests that man made activity is contributing to such weather patterns, Gideon Mendel’s portraits put a human face to the impact such weather patterns create. Meaningful work!

  16. Doug
    January 26, 2015

    I’m not saying things aren’t changing, I’m just saying if Al Gore was standing on the beach, first he would be crying that all the water in the world will be gone soon. No, no, at this rate the earth will surely flood any day now. 12 hours later again at this rate all the water will be gone soon. Yes Al, the earth has it’s seasons.

  17. Naveena
    January 26, 2015

    i am from Srinagar , gogjibagh .. The area parallel to jawahar nagar.. Our ground floor is in water even after 23 days of flood ..my mother in law and her parents were rescued from attic after three days by local sucks.. It seems that the governments disaster management was a total fiasco.. Media showed wrong pic .. Majority of resque was done by local youth .. It was a horrifying experience for the people of Kashmir ..

  18. N Glass
    January 26, 2015

    Long before the industrial age there was dairy farming in Greenland. Cow skeletons have been found in the ice.
    Imagine how bad the floods were then..
    These same Chicken Little “scientists” telling us about catastrophic man made global warming were on the front cover of Time Magazine in the 1970’s warning us we would all freeze to death. Wake up everybody!!
    Think for yourselves. This theory is no more proven than the Inquisition
    “scientists ” brutal insistence that our planet was the centre of the universe.Scientific Consensus ruled. Deniers were burnt at the stake. Nowadays they lose their funding or their jobs.

  19. sandra joyce
    January 26, 2015

    Why the hell did the citizens of northern India have only 20 to half hour notice???
    The official of Kashmir and the government of India should at this time have a state of the art weather bureau or ask for help from the west in setting up a satillite signal.
    Having had a crazy storm here this past winter (west coast). We knew this storm was coming for at least a week if not longer before it hit our area.

  20. Shar
    January 26, 2015

    This was painful to see and read. I was in Nigeria in October 2012 and I saw villages destroyed by the flooding they had. These people had nothing and no one to help them. When I returned back to the U.S. Sandy struck and destroyed my sister’s home. It is so devastating to see people suffer from a catastrophe. At least here in the U.S. we have flood insurance and FEMA. My heart hurts and bleeds for those who have no help.

  21. bibol
    January 25, 2015

    First it was global cooling, then global warming and now climate change

  22. BillN
    January 25, 2015

    Perhaps we should revise the statements attributed to scientists… change “causing” to “contributing significantly to”. Clearly, human activity is not the only “cause” of climate change and the warming of the earth, but we do know that our activities have increased, and continue to increase at an escalating rate, the atmospheric components that cause warming. We CAN and SHOULD reduce those contributions as far and as quickly as we can. I can imagine no rational argument against this course. The photos in this essay speak for themselves. Let’s do WHAT WE CAN to slow or stop this disaster. Perhaps we should send the nay-sayers on a field trip to the parts of the world that are suffering these changes.

  23. Pat
    January 25, 2015

    Floods have been around since time began, and I’m betting they will continue. I had my house flooded when I lived in a 100 year flood plain. Well I was unlucky but knew I lived in a flood plain, and had bought the insurance. Yes it was no fun cleaning it up but stuff happens, and yes everyone in my area pulled together and we got through it. There’s no magic wand that will stop rain, snow heat. Much like large snow storms, at times, now the Media calls them KILLER Storms? Good grief so many have become wimps these days, I grew up in MN. and back in the 60’s & 70’s some winters they had to blast the snow drifts to open roads, other winters there was almost no snow, some times big rains and tornadoes in the summers and the rivers flooded. This is life folks and weather and climates go in cycles. Don’t let the media and big government fool you into thinking this is our fault. Yes we all can do our part but CO2 is necessary to life and those that speak the loudest in favor of carbon tax etc… stand to gain the most, just follow the money and see who will profit from the proposals. What we experience is life. When life happens help your fellow man.

  24. krae
    January 25, 2015

    I hope they get support from their officials who failed to provide adequate evacuations and supply their citizens in need. Shame on us humans for making excuses for our negligence and greed. If you people think that our actions haven’t contributed to the accelerated destruction of our planet then you should move to India and experience the complete eradication of your lives. I am sure that will change your thought process.

  25. Mark Carlson
    January 25, 2015

    What proportion of climate change is caused by human activity? What is the proportion of change that is caused by the natural variations in our greater environment?

    No one has definitive answers for either of these questions and I object to the definitive tone that so many take in blaming human activity as the sole or primary source of the change. There’s far too much unknown for us to be definitive. If you believe in science and objective data, allow science to answer these questions. We are not there yet.

  26. David Stadler
    January 25, 2015

    It seems hopeless and unavoidable but now would be an opportune time to pick up all the plastic that is strewn around in the third world.

  27. T Goodwell
    January 25, 2015

    One of the latest memes from deniers is that climate change “has happened since the earth was formed”. The they go on to blame the victim. They miss the point that this particular climate change is caused by us. And in this case by the lifestyle of western civilization. Maybe what they are really denying is they’re own responsibility and guilt. Just a thought.

  28. Emanuelle Goldstein
    January 25, 2015

    What hysterical propaganda. William Randolph Hearst would be proud.

    January 25, 2015

    I have lived this exreriece at 31/1/2014

  30. Margaret
    January 25, 2015

    Key phrase: ‘although there are many different factors that go into it’. Why focus on climate change which has happened since the earth was formed? Since underdeveloped countries will not be working on their green alternatives in our lifetime let’s understand the choices they make regarding the use of their land and lack of investment in infrastructure have put in jeopardy many of their citizens. That is an issue local and national political action should address stop the environmental hand wringing and get to the practical engineering solutions that will help these people now.

  31. Carlos Grados
    January 25, 2015

    When I see these people I sense the love that they have for one another as well as the love they have for their homes. They love despite their damaged homes and despite the dirty, smelly, and toxic water they have chosen to stand in for these images. Their strength inspires while their surroundings cry out for help.

  32. darimont
    January 25, 2015

    I can’t sat more than the comments of Jax Spence 19 Jan 2015…!…I add this,how India spend so many money for Conquest of Space, and during, a lot of peoples need help and secure !!!…???…

  33. Colette Hanna
    January 25, 2015

    Seeing the video and reading the story left me in awe of the depth of destruction. Thanks for bringing awareness to this situation.

  34. Yasir A
    January 25, 2015

    To support people if Kashmir to rebuild please visit http://www.revivekashmir.org

  35. iqbal
    January 22, 2015

    Floods have receded now and people almost completed the repairs but the local govt is still thinking to pay compensation .

  36. Marcelo Lemos Correia
    January 20, 2015

    A relação que ele faz com a bíblia e o dilúvio torna o trabalho mais interessante.

  37. john edwards
    January 19, 2015

    Very sad to see such misery,there are more details of global warming on http://www.buzcall.com

  38. Robert Louis
    January 19, 2015

    Now NatGeo CAN post these photos to Local ADMINISTRATORS to compensate for these helpless victims!

  39. Jax Spence
    January 19, 2015

    As I go through these photographs, I am dumbfounded to see so many people living in a reality that is so extremely opposite from my own in a very negative way. I have the privilege to lie here in my warm, dry bed in my own home and write this comment on my smart phone while the people in these photographs can’t even get into their destroyed homes because of several feet of food waters. This boggles my mind! I am very sorry for these people.

  40. angelito
    January 19, 2015

    HARD to speak words to in viewing kind of flood.

  41. Di Hammond
    January 19, 2015

    This is terrible! Who is helping these people?? Surely they are not left to pick up their lives on their own. And as for the rule makers in India isn’t it time they started rectifying some of the damage that caused such problems as these and aided those who are suffering??
    Wishing all caught up in this disaster the very best.

  42. Mason
    January 18, 2015

    I feel for these guys

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