Gideon men­del

Professional Photography - - Contents - Natalie Den­ton

The South African who doc­u­mented the Calais ‘Jun­gle’ in an un­usual way

Un­like many pho­tog­ra­phers who vis­ited the no­to­ri­ous refugee camp in Calais known as ‘The Jun­gle’, Gideon Men­del found much of the re­sult­ing im­agery, can­did and abun­dant as it was, to be dis­taste­ful and ex­ploita­tive. So to pro­vide the world with an al­ter­nate view, the renowned doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­pher has crafted a unique book and ex­hi­bi­tion that re­veals a ‘side­ways’ look at the peo­ple who at one time called The Jun­gle home.

Used tooth­brushes, a tam­pon, teddy bears, tear­gas can­is­ters, worn-out clothes, a doll’s head, a burnt bi­cy­cle, a mat­tress, and a saw. It’s per­haps not the most al­lur­ing list of sub­jects. But given their con­text, multi-award-win­ning pho­tog­ra­pher Gideon Men­del has cre­ated a body of work that could very well be­come a gen­er­a­tion-defin­ing mas­ter­piece. The ti­tle of Men­del’s new book, Dzhan­gal, is a Pashto term that trans­lates as ‘this is the for­est’ – the ori­gin of the word ‘jun­gle’ to de­scribe the Calais mi­grant camp that was forcibly closed last Oc­to­ber. In it, Men­del presents over 40 thought-pro­vok­ing im­ages of dis­carded items he dis­cov­ered at the camp. But as provoca­tive and sen­sa­tional as this project has be­come, it wasn’t ac­tu­ally what the first and cur­rent win­ner of the Pol­lock Prize for Cre­ativ­ity had in mind when he set out for France last May. The South African pho­tog­ra­pher was al­ready well known for his 20-year-strong col­lab­o­ra­tive pho­tog­ra­phy project, ‘Through Pos­i­tive Eyes’, where he turned his cam­era over to those liv­ing with HIV, al­low­ing them to doc­u­ment their lives from a more per­sonal point of view. So he was in­vited by the Uni­ver­sity of East Lon­don to com­plete a sim­i­lar task in The Jun­gle. How­ever, things didn’t go ac­cord­ing to plan. “The idea was to give the res­i­dents cam­eras so they could make a per­sonal pho­to­graphic state­ment, rather than be rep­re­sented by the hoards of pho­tog­ra­phers com­ing into the camp. We thought this would be more ap­pro­pri­ate and could po­ten­tially say much more,” the 57-year-old pho­tog­ra­pher ex­plains. “How­ever, I quickly be­came aware that there was quite a lot of hos­til­ity to the cam­era. Peo­ple were gen­er­ally very po­lite and didn’t like to give of­fence, but I think there was a sense that a pho­tog­ra­pher can af­fect all kinds of things. “On one level, there was the threat of be­ing iden­ti­fied in the camp, jeop­ar­dis­ing their asy­lum claims. On another level, there had been so many pho­tog­ra­phers pass­ing through, peo­ple felt used and abused by the press, and the cam­era had be­come the en­emy. So I didn’t feel as through we’d suc­ceeded de­spite the best of in­ten­tions. With the HIV pos­i­tive project I’d re­ally bro­ken through, but here it just wasn’t work­ing.” With these less than sat­is­fac­tory re­sults, Men­del – as he’s done on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions through­out his 34-year ca­reer fo­cus­ing on global so­cial is­sues – had to think on his feet. And it was pre­cisely by his feet that he found the solution. “Al­most in­stinc­tively, I be­gan to look at all the stuff on the ground and al­most cu­rate and or­gan­ise it,” he says. “I headed over to an area of the camp that had been de­mol­ished some months be­fore and just went round pick­ing up all kinds of things that seemed sig­nif­i­cant to me. These were things that you didn’t or­di­nar­ily see in a pho­to­graph but rep­re­sented chil­dren or women, for ex­am­ple.” Laden with bags of what must have looked to his fel­low train pas­sen­gers like rub­bish, Men­del ar­rived home to Lon­don with a fresh fo­cus. Af­ter ex­per­i­ment­ing with var­i­ous back­grounds col­lected from the camp, such as sand and fab­ric from tents, he even­tu­ally set­tled on a more sim­plis­tic approach.

“I shot the im­ages on black and white, so the ob­jects could come through more strongly,” he says. “I’d never done still life be­fore; with my back­ground in doc­u­men­tary pho­to­jour­nal­ism, I’ve worked a lot with Rollei­flex cam­eras and medium for­mat, but never large for­mat.” So with the help of Metz+Recine stu­dio in Hack­ney, Men­del be­gan the trans­for­ma­tion from ev­ery­day ob­ject to sym­bolic art. “I worked on a Lin­hof field cam­era, which had been adapted with a PhaseOne back teth­ered to the com­puter, and we used a very high qual­ity of light­ing, so I was able to de­liver a very metic­u­lous way of pho­tograph­ing.” Un­like the more or­ganic shoot­ing-style as­so­ci­ated with pho­to­jour­nal­ism, Men­del dis­cov­ered the tech­nique of still life to be more de­lib­er­ate. “These items came out of a very chaotic en­vi­ron­ment, so I tried to bring some kind of or­der and or­gan­i­sa­tion to that. I wanted to bring a kind of foren­sic, sci­en­tific approach to it, and pho­to­graph them as if they were ar­chae­o­log­i­cal items of great im­por­tance that rep­re­sent more than what they first ap­pear to, so that peo­ple can un­der­stand the place through these ob­jects. They are very in­ti­mate, per­sonal items. “You think about all those tooth­brushes: they still con­tain the DNA of the peo­ple who used them. So it was a very painstak­ing process, lay­ing things out and po­si­tion­ing them. Some of the shots took a very long time to per­fect. For ex­am­ple, the tooth­brush im­age took about eight hours to get right on a black and white, which you’ll no­tice match each other al­most ex­actly.” The com­pleted 80-page tome, which is avail­able at gost­books.com, also features writ­ing by res­i­dents of the Jun­gle camp, and its launch co­in­cides with an ex­hi­bi­tion at Lon­don’s Au­to­graph ABP pre­sent­ing a com­bi­na­tion of the real items and the pho­to­graphs, which runs un­til 11 Fe­bru­ary. “This project ac­tu­ally came from quite an an­tipho­to­graphic im­pulse,” Men­del says, re­flect­ing on his work. “I felt like the pho­tog­ra­phy re­sponse to the refugee mi­grant cri­sis in Europe had been a fail­ure and, if any­thing, pho­tog­ra­phy was part of the prob­lem. So it be­came a case of try­ing to un­der­stand the place and make some kind of state­ment about it. “These pic­tures are try­ing to con­vey the hu­man­ity of the refugees who used these items, and in some ways show a side­ways view of the is­sue. I’m not show­ing pic­tures of hu­man be­ings, I’m show­ing pic­tures of things they’ve used, but peo­ple still have quite an emo­tional re­sponse to it.” As well as the stan­dard £25 edi­tion of Dzhan­gal, art afi­ciona­dos can col­lect one of 50 spe­cial signed edi­tions, com­plete with signed print and unique slip­case. Next up for the six-time World Press Photo win­ner is the con­clu­sion of his lauded re­sponse to cli­mate change, ‘Drown­ing World’. “I’ve been work­ing on it for 10 years and I re­ally want to move that to­wards a con­clu­sion, so in this com­ing year I’m hop­ing to have a few op­por­tu­ni­ties to re­spond to floods.” With the world ever ready to pro­vide con­stant cri­sis, Men­del’s ad­ven­tures shows no signs of slow­ing. Keep up to date with his work at gideon­mendel.com.

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