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Trial by water. British photographer astounded to discover that an advanced western country weathers natural disaster better than a corrupt and chaotic third-world country
Last year, when visiting Australia, Pakistan-born Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali was asked how he felt about the floods in Pakistan. He responded that the floods were terrible, but that they merely exposed the severe social and political problems that already existed. One could argue that, by contrast, having also been subjected to a massive and protracted 'trial by water', Australia has emerged with flying colours.
Not that the photographer in the story I will share here who, after photographing flood victims in the UK, Haiti, India and Pakistan, lobbed into Australia to capture the effect of the floods there, seems quite to have realized that that was the most important, or the most interesting, thing that he was seeing...By Courtney Trenwith, reporting for the Melbourne 'Age'.
'Gideon's International Flood Chase'.
'When international photographer Gideon Mendel flew from the other side of the world to document Australia's flood crisis, he thought he had a good idea of what to expect.
'The London-based snapper has travelled to most of the major floods in recent history - in Pakistan, India, Haiti and the UK - and seen how devastating and incorrigible torrents of muddy water can be to lives, livelihoods and entire nations.
'But as he thrust his lens over parts of flood-affected Queensland and Victoria this month, he saw a unique example of what he had considered to be a reasonably universal natural disaster.
"The main thing which really struck me [in Australia] was the speed and pace and kind of industrial nature of the response", Mendel said. "The scale of the response, I found quite astonishing. It was incredible how quickly stuff was cleaned up and cleared away and how quickly the landscape changed".
Sir. You should not have been surprised at all. Australia is, after all, an advanced western nation whose citizens possess, in general, a strong work ethic and an equally strong sense of mutual obligation and charity, and whose government, army and police force- unlike those of Haiti and Pakistan - are relatively free of graft and corruption. And - why say 'industrial'?? Why not say - 'organised and communal'?? Have you never heard of the expression, 'Many hands make light work'? - CM.
'Mendel was among the scores of international journalists, photographers, and video crews who flocked to Queensland to report on the phenomenal scale of the disaster, which killed at least 22 people and ruined the homes and businesses of tens of thousands.
'Mendel is working on an international project that mainly captures portraits of flood victims embedded in their water-ravaged homes and communities.
'Moving away from convention, he uses a mixture of modern digital photography and a 1950s-era Rolleiflex film camera to document the savage impact of floods that he claims are becoming intensified by climate change.
'As the water dried up in Australia, within hours in many places (and since the post-flood cleanup was so swift and effective - CM) Mendel's work was forced to take a different approach, and one in steep contrast to the images he saw in third-world countries such as Pakistan and Haiti.
Yeah: because even the poorest, most traumatised and bereaved flood victims weren't kicked to the kerb and forgotten like mostly happened in Pakistan and Haiti, they were scooped up by their neighbours and the appropriate local authorities, and looked after. So, in the absence of sad-eyed human flotsam to photograph, he chose to focus on what he sees as the flood's exposure of and judgement upon our evil materialistic Western lifestyle- CM.
'"A lot of my work in Australia turned out to be, and it wasn't something I planned but was a response to what I found, a series of portraits or images of piles of stuff, an immense amount of consumer goods destroyed", Mendel said.
'Consumer goods'. I wonder whether he would say that to the woman who returned to her wrecked home after the flash flood in the Lockyer Valley, to find that though nearly all of her household things had gone, her wedding dress had lodged in a tree in the garden, from which she lovingly retrieved it? - CM.
"People in front of their houses and piles of stuff...which I found very interesting. It struck me...how much stuff we have and...how a flood can shed light on all our mountains of consumer goods. They were effectively flushed out of people's houses, you see all their stuff sitting on the roadside."
Yes: there were all the discarded things sitting by the roadside, tossed out whether sadly or disgustedly by the householders and their army of willing helpers, ready for the very-efficient garbage men to take away. But unlike Haiti or Pakistan, there were no empty-faced people sitting hopelessly for days or weeks, starving, unclad and destitute...and even stray animals, whether pets, farm livestock or wildlife, such as a half-drowned echidna that washed up on a beach, were as much as possible being gathered up and taken care of, in various places. Did it even occur to you, Mr Mendel, to wonder whether the kind of society that takes such good care of its own that nobody (even the poorest of 'battlers') is left without food, shelter, clothing or medicine in the wake of a major disaster, and in which ten thousand people volunteer, in just one day, to help total strangers clean and clear out their stinking, muddied homes, might not also be the kind of society that promotes a certain level of economic productivity, thus ensuring that even its poorer members will end up owning rather more in the way of household goods, than someone on the bottom rung in Haiti or Pakistan? - CM.
"In Pakistan, where floods raged for weeks through one-fifth of the country last year, about 2000 people died and 20 million were directly affected, according to the government.
'Mendel said six months later, the scenes of devastation still lingered in many areas, and families remained refugees.
That is because Pakistan is a hopelessly corrupt and badly-governed Muslim country, with a general ethos of fatalism, suspicion and aggression. - CM.
'In Pakistan, there's still schools that are full of sand and lots of villages haven't recovered from the floods', he said. "Most of the flood waters have gone, but there's still a lot of damage left. The pace of reconstruction and rebuilding and dealing with it has been incredibly slow and still most of the [victims) are in camps and not resettled back in their homes yet".
As opposed to all those busy-bee Australians, the fellow-citizens, neighbours and friends as well as the police, army, State Emergency Service volunteers, council workers and tradies, swarming into the flood zones the moment it was safe to do so, to sweep and scrub and shovel and wash and mend and generally put everything back together again as fast as they could. - CM.
"[In Pakistan] I photographed a huge military camp with 40,000 people living under canvas but on the outskirts and on the roads nearby were people sleeping", he said. "I found the conditions in the camp were quite painful and horrifying but outside there were people desperate who couldn't even get into the camp. A lot of people had lost their documents in the flooding, they'd lost all their ID. Without any ID they couldn't get into a camp. Families and children were sleeping on the roadsides, they'd survived [but] ...they'd lost their ability to support themselves."
Quite a few Australians, especially in the Lockyer Valley that suffered a flash flood metres high, have also lost their means of income, their tools, crops, livestock, the contents of their shops or workshops; but they won't be left in the ditch by their fellow-citizens, as seems to be common practice in Pakistan. - CM.
"The scale of the consequences [of floods in Pakistan and Australia] are very different. That's not to denigrate the real pain and impact and catastrophe that it is to lots of people. I wouldn't say what happened to you is minor compared to what happened to people in Pakistan, it's not. People lost lives and so much that's valuable to them."
'Mendel said the differences said a lot about how the world would response (sic - respond? - CM) to the growing number of climate-change-related natural disasters.
'He wanted his work to capture a statement about the present response. "My engagement of [flooding] is in a way an absolutely metaphor, a sense of a drowning world", he said. "It's very much as a way of trying to address climate change. Of course, the science isn't always suggesting there's a clear linkage between flooding and climate change, but I think the consensus is that climate change is going to cause increasing amounts of extreme weather conditions and flooding is one of them."
And Blind Freddy can see that if you belong to a non-Muslim and still quite strongly-Christianised society like Australia, which values cooperation, charity, hard work, and forward thinking, you stand a better chance of coming through disaster, than if you belong to a Muslim society like Pakistan, whose response to Trial by Water (or by Earthquake, or Tempest, or Fire) will be hobbled by the suspicion and aggression and sloth and lack of cooperation and forethought, and general chaos, arising from the dominant ideology - CM.
'His portrayal of each of the floods are set to be displayed in a series of exhibitions...
'Many of the Australian scenes, including a kangaroo being rescued from floods in Victoria, will be included in an exhibition at an international climate change conference in South Africa in December.
"I'm not trying to do conventional news story telling, it's more engaging something that's a bit quirky and creative," Mendel said. "I'm drawn to the biblical sense of flooding, the sense that it is quite a powerful visual image. I'm trying to portrait people in their flooded environment - people looking at the camera in a way in which is almost...accusing us, [asking[ what is our personal complicity in the circumstances that helped create climate change.
If you click on the link, the news story includes some of these portraits. However, when I looked carefully at such pictures of Aussies affected by flood, as appear, what I could make out in people's faces didn't look like accusation or blame; the faces seemed to say, 'sh*t happens, but what the hell, mate, we're alive, now let's get to work and clean this mess up!" - CM.
"Our westerly lifestyles - to what extent are we all responsible?".
There is much that can and should be done to prevent or ameliorate climate disruption; and just like Pakistan and Haiti, there are real problems with deforestation and land degradation in Australia, that worsen the impact of severe weather events (though it is likely, because of the nature of their society, that Australians will acknowledge and tackle those problems rather sooner, and more effectively, than Pakistan or Haiti will).
But does Mendel mean, by focusing on and blaming western materialism, to dodge the uncomfortable truth that a good deal of the reason why flooded-out Pakistanis suffered more than flooded-out Australians, has to do with the bad government of the former and the good government of the latter, and with the fact that in Muslim Pakistan ( probably much more so even than in culturally-Catholic though chaotic Haiti), too many people were dominated by a fatalism, inability to cooperate, and 'devil take the hindmost' attitude that crippled their ability to help each other when the water came roaring through, and equally crippled their ability to clean up and rebuild afterwards?
Here are four stories - I could link dozens more - that illustrate how a free, well-governed western country - such as, in the present case, Australia - can work, and often does work, right down at ground level, when disaster strikes.
First, from Grantham, the town that suffered the worst when taken by surprise by a huge flash flood. Many people were saved by the charity, quick thinking and courage of their neighbours.
'Mr Adams, 75, said that as the water rose around him he balanced his five dogs on a mattress which floated near the ceiling, keeping them safe. He and his daughter, 21 year old Angela Adams, were later rescued by their neighbours, Ray Van Dijk and Daniel Moore, who paddled through the fast-moving torrent in a canoe, retrieving 20 people. Mr Moore,a 41 year old fire-sprinkler fitter who lost everything in the flood, said he was "shit scared" during the rescues, but pushed through the fear to save his neighbours. "It was a torrent of water and it was just flying", he said, "But I got away with my life, so I'm pretty happy".
Second, from Toowoomba: a young piano teacher, swept away in a flash flood, owes her life to two quick-thinking strangers.
Third, from Victoria, where an enormous flood moves at glacial pace toward the Murray, swamping town after town as it proceeds. Townspeople celebrated Australia Day by a working picnic: sausage sandwich, and...sandbag-filling, to shore up the levee banks.
'Grab a snag, fill a sandbag: Swan Hill residents work together'.
Fourth, from Queensland, where a group of YMCA teenagers from Sydney gave up their long-planned camping holiday and instead spent five days helping clean up in the worst-hit area, the Lockyer Valley.
'Sydney teens aid relief effort'.
As the 19th-century Australian poet Adam Lindsay Gordon once wrote: "Life is mainly froth and bubble/ Two things stand like stone/ Kindness in another's trouble/ Courage in your own".