Things we lost in the wildfires: images of the devastating personal cost of a warming world

“I was looking for a way to respond to the climate crisis for a long time,” says Gideon Mendel. Since the 1980s, the South African photographer has dedicated his career to documenting social issues around the globe – from the atrocities of apartheid to the Syrian refugee crisis. His images have sought to centre the lives and voices of the people who have been affected. But when he turned his attention to the warming planet around 15 years ago, the standard visual language seemed to be all “glaciers and polar bears”. “I wanted to make my work more personal and visceral,” he says.

Now Mendel travels the world, visiting places where increased flooding and wildfires have destroyed homes and ravaged communities. He does not consider himself a photojournalist: you won’t find any dramatic scenes of fleeing or rescue in his portfolio. Rather, he sticks around to see what’s left behind. The Climate Artefact series, from his Burning World project, depicts personal possessions and other objects burnt in unplanned blazes. Mendel began collecting these charred mementoes after the intense bushfires in Australia in 2019–20; further items were acquired on subsequent trips to wildfire sites in Greece, Canada and the US.

Some of the objects are still recognisable: the scorched metal frame of a camera; the twisted form of a wine glass. Others are disfigured beyond recognition. Each is photographed against a stark white background in a studio, giving the impression of “floating in space”, as Mendel puts it. He arranges the objects meticulously, and works to ensure consistent lighting. “I wanted to photograph them as if they were precious archaeological artefacts,” he explains. The marks and distortions caused by the flames are presented as forensic evidence: this is what happens when temperatures rise too high.

Mendel and his local “fixers” have found that people are keen to contribute to his project. “Obviously it’s a landscape of huge trauma. But people often haven’t spoken about it a lot, and they really want to talk. There’s a kind of processing that happens for them,” he says. The objects they donate can be an important part of their stories. Ramona Wilson, who lost her home during the 2021 British Columbia fires, gave Mendel some scraps of melted aluminium – all that remained of her late husband’s treasured snowmobile and old car collection. “I was angry with myself for not selling the cars before the fire,” she recalls. “The trickles of aluminium on the ground were oddly reassuring.”

Not everyone shares the same views on the fires. Mendel notes that one couple in Colorado, who donated a collection of colourful marbles, are strident climate science deniers. But most of those affected share an understanding that – in the words of Terry Murphy, also from Colorado – “climate change is all over this”. With extended droughts and higher temperatures, frequent and devastating fires have become “the norm”, says Murphy. “Sadly this is our future, but it doesn’t have to be for subsequent generations.”

It’s this sense of urgent hope that drives Mendel to keep taking his photos. “Often there’s a question about my work: ‘How can you take such beautiful, aestheticised photographs of such difficult things?’ I think that’s valid. But for me, it’s a way to make people look,” he says. In an ideal world, his images might “drive people to social and political action, as opposed to despair and sad paralysis”.

Mendel acknowledges that it’s impossible to know what the environmental impact of his work will be. But whatever happens next, his photographs provide a record of what has already been lost to the climate emergency – and they turn this loss into art.

Camera, Terry Murphy, Louisville, Colorado, US

“My first Nikon, an FM, was a graduation gift from my parents. It still serves as it was one of the few cameras from my collection – which spanned from the late 60s to the early 2000s – that made a hasty exit with me. Most did not,” says Murphy. “I used the cameras to shoot an array of life experiences, from our newborns to astrophotography. The film previously captured these events, but now the cameras bear witness to their own destruction. But I’m nonplussed about the blaze: it wasn’t a surprise and we have greater challenges ahead to minimise this kind of event in the future.”

Bottles, Rhonda Rossbach, Derek Briem and Autumn Briem, Killiney Beach, British Columbia, Canada

“It’s devastating. We weren’t allowed back for three weeks, and then they took us on a bus tour, but we weren’t allowed to get off,” said Rossbach in 2021. “It was another week before we were allowed on our property. You can see all the stuff that you wish you had grabbed. We lost the boat, our fishing gear, chickens and the coop. Our last seven years of building our garden up – gone! And the house, too. Both of us have lost family members, so we had stuff we inherited that we’ll never get back. That’s the hardest part.”

Marbles, Kathleen Fleming, Boulder, Colorado, US

Fleming and her husband believe “the fires have nothing to do with climate change”. “But they were keen to be part of the project,” says Gideon Mendel. “They wanted to have their voice represented. And I didn’t hide where I was coming from. I make the choice of objects on the basis of how things look. But then once we have them, it’s the process of: how do you photograph them? We spent hours laying out the marbles on a glass surface to get that composition and that shape.”

Tricycle, Areti Tsirozoglou and Kostas Mareneglis, Evia, Greece

“We moved to Evia from Athens to set up a business, the Forest Village resort,” said Marengelis in 2021. “People came to our resort to hike, mountaineer and relax. We hope our buildings and facilities will be rebuilt, but the forest and the natural landscape will not be the same. It will take more than 20 years to regrow, and even then it won’t be in its original condition. And without the forest, I don’t know how our resort can work. I think the young people will be forced to abandon their villages and move to cities just to survive.”

Vintage cars, Ramona Wilson, Okanagan Indian Band reserve, British Columbia, Canada

“It’s been a difficult few years: my dear husband passed away from cancer in 2019, then the pandemic, and then forest fires devastated us,” says Wilson. “My husband’s collection of snowmobiles and old cars was destroyed – more than 30 vehicles. I was so sad because I’d been saying I should sell them. But I couldn’t take away all of Lee’s ‘treasures’ so soon after his death. Gideon kindly listened to my tale and then he made a work of art with the debris. Now, finally, there is some good news – we hope to be in our new house before Christmas.”

Landscapes and atlases, Marco Frith, Wandella, New South Wales, Australia

“I’ve seen a lot of burning during winters here, but I’ve never seen a bushfire and summer like this,” Frith said in January 2020. “My home was destroyed: that was a shock because I didn’t think it would get through a stone-walled house.”

Mendel explains why he decided to photograph Frith’s collection of burned atlases and landscapes: “I’m often drawn to things which carry a kind of poignancy.”

Holy vigil lamp, Kyriaki Karava, Evia, Greece

“There is still no worse sight in the village than our church,” says Karava, mayor of Kokinomilia. “It pains me every day to see it completely destroyed. I’m especially sorry that I didn’t manage to take any of the church’s holy icons with me. I gifted Gideon a metallic holy vigil lamp that had a shape almost like a chapel. At first, I didn’t want to give it to him. Then, I thought: he travelled so far to show the world the aftermath of the wildfires on our island. I gifted him the lamp with all my love and all the hopes and wishes that my co-villagers once asked of God when lighting the candle.”

Family portrait, Tiffany Wilson, Okanagan Indian Band reserve, British Columbia, Canada

“It’s hard to have people drive by and take pictures,” said Wilson right after the wildfires in 2021. “I felt like saying to them, ‘Do you want to come in, can I give you a tour?’ I could show them: ‘That’s where my grandfather slept. This was our kitchen.’ We had three generations living in that house, soon to be four. Climate change definitely had something to do with the blazes. That and not being allowed to do the prescribed burns our people have been doing for thousands of years.”
Additonal reporting: Andriana Theochari

• Gideon Mendel: Fire/Flood is at the Photographers’ Gallery in London until 31 May 2023