Images of Climate Change That Cannot Be Missed

I can remember, a quarter century ago, when photographers would call me fairly regularly to ask where they should go to take pictures of global warming. (I’d written an early book on what was still often called the greenhouse effect.) In those days, it was hard to say: the danger of climate change remained mostly

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I can remember, a quarter century ago, when photographers would call me fairly regularly to ask where they should go to take pictures of global warming. (I’d written an early book on what was still often called the greenhouse effect.) In those days, it was hard to say: the danger of climate change remained mostly prospective, something that scientists assured us was coming but which had not, in its most obvious forms, really appeared. I’d suggest an Alaskan village, where the loss of sea ice had led to ruinous erosion, or one of the South Pacific islands, where “king tides” were beginning to cause problems, but in those days it was hard to actually see global warming. The creative photographers at the time who figured out strategies to document the change deserve great respect: James Balog, for instance, whose pictures ended up in the Library of Congress this spring, and who is most noted for his time-lapse images of collapsing glaciers, which required herculean technological perseverance to obtain.

But perhaps the single most powerful rendering of the climate crisis I’ve ever seen is in a smallish square room on the second floor. Each of the four walls has been turned into a video screen, and they simultaneously play images collected over the past decade or so by the South African photographer Gideon Mendel. The films show people in places around the world returning to their flooded homes: there are Bengalis and Nigerians and Texans and Germans and many more, but the sequences are remarkably similar—people wading through chest-deep, stagnant floodwater, opening the front door of their houses, and then wandering into the waters inside. There’s no dialogue, just the overwhelming sense that something very wrong has happened. If the power of Breashears’s images involve change over time—how three hundred feet of vertical ice has simply disappeared in the Himalayas—then Mendel’s videos invoke change over physical space: the same foreign and scary thing is happening around the globe, simultaneously. The only way to make it more powerful would be to flood the room as you were watching, so that you, too, were standing up to your chest in oily water.

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 2srcsrc7, 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 2srcsrc8, Australia and Pakistan in 2src1src, Thailand in 2src11. Plenty of photographers were documenting Sandy in New York, in 2src12, so he went to Nigeria, instead; 2src13 was Germany, as the Rhine overflowed; 2src14 was Somerset, in England, and Srinagar, in Kashmir; 2src15, “the year of the Paris summit,” found him in Brazil, Bangladesh, and the Carolinas. France flooded in 2src16, and 2src17 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 2src22, he was back in Pakistan, for what may be the most extensive flooding recorded since Noah.

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