Essay by Conohar Scott
Conohar Scott posits that Gideon Mendel’s outdoor exhibition at the Soho Photography Quarter provides a much-needed counterpoint to the iridescent spectacle of the solitary iceberg, which, upon further observation, is divorced from the broader socio-ecological context of climate change.
Photographs of icebergs have become synonymous with the visual representation of climate change. Over the course of the last two decades, numerous photographers have travelled to Greenland, or to the Antarctic ice sheets, in the hope of saying something about the looming threat posed by global heating. A notable exponent of this genre of photography is the German photographer Olaf Otto Becker, who has been documenting the melting of the Greenland ice cap since 2003. However, a quick image search on Google for the term “iceberg” will locate any amount of desktop wallpaper or stock photographs that depict these glassy cathedrals, cast adrift upon the open seas. In instances when the iceberg does not appear as snow white, it occupies the frame like a tremendous rough-hewn semi-precious stone. In such cases, the refraction of light produces rich hues of emerald green or periwinkle blue, which often appear at odds with the desultory grey of wintry sky and sea. Whilst artists like Becker lay claim to the unique power of photography to document the changing world of the Anthropocene with seeming neutrality, in truth, the ideological edifice of the iceberg comes fully loaded with a host of cultural signifiers that lurk beneath the surface.
Iceberg photography can be understood as a form of neo-Luminism, translated into contemporary photographic praxis. As such, its origins can be traced back to 19th century painters from the US such as Frederic Edwin Church. Travelling with his companion, the pastor Louis Legrand Noble, to paint The Icebergs (1861) off the coast of Nova Scotia, the clergyman’s diaries recall the painter’s religious veneration during his encounter, which is couched in the language of the Kantian sublime. Negative emotions such as fear and dread are surpassed only by a keen appreciation for the gothic majesty of the scene. In Church’s composition, such intense emotions are conveyed by a towering repoussoir of ice, which extends far beyond the confines of the frame to the left. Here, glacial shards are rendered by Church with an opalescence that is intended to signify God’s immanence in nature. However, when it comes to depicting the imminent threat of climate change, symbolism of this kind is problematic. This is because the aesthetic of neo-Luminism echoes the anthropocentrism of a post-Enlightenment worldview, which is deeply embedded within Cartesian dualistic notions of “Nature vs. Culture”, and is out of step with contemporary environmental discourse.
In her book Women’s Liberation and the Sublime (2006), the eco-feminist scholar Bonnie Mann argues that Kant’s notion of the sublime serves to advance masculine preoccupations with power and territorial dominance, which historically has subjugated women, racial and ethnic groups, as well as non-human beings from their rightful status as subjects to a subordinate status as objects. For Mann, the triumph of reason over nature during the encounter functions like a mirror, allowing the masculine subject ‘to experience his own might and magnitude as sublime’. This observation leads the critic to conclude that male gendered preoccupations with power and dominance emanating from the sublime are antagonistic to an eco-feminist perspective, which privileges alternate values such as heterogeneity, solidarity and collaboration between constituent subjects. Moreover, in the writings of Enlightenment scholars such as Kant, Hegel and Hume, Mann observes that terms such as “reason” and “civilisation” are often employed as shorthand for the superiority of white Western culture, whilst, conversely, non-white peoples from other parts of the globe are characterised as backwards or primitive. Taking Mann’s eco-feminist viewpoint into consideration, it is worthwhile questioning if the leitmotif of the iceberg as an indexical sign for climate change succeeds in reproducing existent racial inequalities by privileging an aesthetic of whiteness.
When it comes to photographs of climate change, the waters urgently need to be muddied. It is well known that climate change is also a problem of racial justice; in poorer regions of the world such as North Africa or South Asia, brown and black skinned individuals are some of the most climate-vulnerable people on earth, although they contribute least to global heating emissions . Even within wealthier nations, non-Caucasian communities are more likely to be exposed to environmental pollutants, and extreme weather events such as floods, than their white counterparts. Given the profound challenges that lie ahead, if the possibility of runaway climate change and a hothouse planet is to be avoided, it is crucial that photographers begin to place greater importance on images that address the global inequalities of climate change. Thankfully, the newly established exterior space in London’s Soho Photography Quarter, which belongs to The Photographers’ Gallery, has undertaken such a task with the opening of Gideon Mendel’s exhibition Fire/Flood. In particular, the artist’s Submerged Portraits provides a much-needed counterpoint to the iridescent spectacle of the solitary iceberg, which, upon further observation, appears divorced from the broader socio-ecological context of climate change.
Part of his ongoing series Drowned World, Mendel’s photographs on display here document the destruction caused by flash flooding events, which can be attributed to rising sea levels and extreme weather patterns caused by global heating. By combining examples from post-colonial countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh with locations in the developed world such as the UK, US and France, Mendel succeeds in addressing some of the racial and gender inequalities that Mann raises in her criticism of the Kantian sublime. On each occasion, the photographer accompanies his subjects into the foul waters which have recently engulfed their homes. Due to his use of a medium format Rolleiflex camera, Mendel’s square prints exude a sense of intimacy, which stands in stark contrast to the neo-Luminism of iceberg photographs. Whether it be in the flooded valleys of South Yorkshire or India’s disputed territory of Kashmir, Mendel approaches his subjects with an underlying assumption of their essential democratic equality; and in what must be the most heart-breaking of moments, they respond in kind by announcing their pride and defiance. It is fitting then that such personal experiences of tragedy are displayed publicly in the streets of Soho for passers-by to see. ♦
All images courtesy the artist and The Photographers’ Gallery, London © Gideon Mendel
Installation views of Fire/Flood at Soho Photography Quarter until 31 March 2023. Photographs by Crispin Hughes
Dr. Conohar Scott is a Senior Lecturer in photographic theory and a practicing artist in the University of Lincoln, UK. His research interests concern the representation of industrial pollution in photography, and the application of art as a tool for environmental advocacy. Scott is the author of Photography and Environmental Activism: Visualising the Struggle against Industrial Pollution (Routledge, 2022).
 Bonnie Mann, Women’s Liberation, and the Sublime: Feminism, Postmodernism, Environment (Oxford University Press, 2006) p. 46.
 Arthur Baker and Ian Mitchell, “How Would Rapid Growth in the Poorest Countries Affect Global Carbon Emissions” (Center for Global Development, 2020) available at cgdev.org/blog/how-would-rapid-growth-poorest-countries-affect-global-carbon-emissions
1-‘Florence Abraham, Igbogene, Bayelsa State, Nigeria, November 2012’ from the series Drowning World © Gideon Mendel
2-‘Amjad Ali Laghari, Goth Bawal Khan village, Sindh Province, Pakistan, September 2022’ from the series Drowning World © Gideon Mendel
3-‘Abdul Ghafoor, Mohd Yousof Naich School, Sindh Province, Pakistan, October 2022’ from the series Drowning World © Gideon Mendel
4-‘Joy Christian, Balyesa State, Nigeria, November 2022’ from the series Drowning World © Gideon Mendel
5-‘João Pereira de Araújo, Taquari District, Rio Branco, Brazil, March 2015’ from the series Drowning World © Gideon Mendel
6-‘Nigeria, November 2022’ from the series Drowning World © Gideon Mendel
7-‘Gurjeet Dhanoa, Rock Creek, Superior, Colorado, US, March 2022’ from the series Burning World © Gideon Mendel
8-‘Uncle Noel Butler and Trish Butler, Nura Gunyu Indigenous Education Centre, New South Wales, Australia, 28 February 2020’ from the series Burning World © Gideon Mendel
9-‘Rhonda Rossbach, Derek Briem and Autumn Briem, Killiney Beach, British Columbia, Canada, 16 October 2021’ from the series Burning World © Gideon Mendel
10>12-Installation views of Fire/Blood, Soho Photography Quarter. Photographs by Crispin Hughes