Contacting Toronto 2014: Drowning World

Gideon Mendel


London-based, South African photographer Gideon Mendel’s portraits of people whose lives have been devastated by floods bear witness to an experience that erases political, geographical, and cultural divides. The site of this project, Queen’s Park station—an often crowded subterranean space used by 47,000 people a day—offers an opportunity to ponder human vulnerability and the idea of a shared identity drawn across cultures.

An art project with photojournalistic roots, Drowning World is grounded in the artist’s belief that depicting the individuality of the victims will counter a tendency to view them as faceless statistics. The names and locations of his subjects are displayed beneath each image, further highlighting their identities. The victims address the camera, looking out from the landscape of an environmental calamity that has all but destroyed their lives. Their unsettling gaze, surrounding the viewer from every subway poster in the station, invites an emotional response to a shared reality that ought not to seem so distant.

Begun in 2007 as a response to climate change, this series is part of a long-term effort by the artist that spans nine countries to date: England, India, Haiti, Pakistan, Australia, Thailand, Nigeria, Germany, and the Philippines. By juxtaposing portraits of flood victims from different countries, Mendel reveals how the fates of these individuals are becoming linked through adversity. While still photographs are at the heart of this project, Mendel also captures video footage, and his Water videos (shown on subway platform screens) show people navigating their lives amidst recent floodwaters, expanding both the visual context and the frame of the portraits.

Co-produced by PATTISON Onestop and Art for Commuters. A part of PATTISON’s ongoing Art in Transit programme.

Curated by Sharon Switzer