“The central thing is that the images are humanising and affectionate,” says Gideon Mendel says of his series The Ward. “They are life-affirming pictures, even though everyone they focused on did sadly die within a year of me taking them.”
Originally from South Africa, Gideon Mendel is a committed photojournalist who has spent much of the last 25 years raising awareness of the global HIV/AIDS crisis. He’s published numerous books on the subject, shot in various countries and now, as part of the Fitzrovia Chapel’s Lineage Programme, he’s showing his first-ever work on it.
Back in 1993 Mendel spent several weeks documenting life in the Broderip and Charles Bell wards in London’s Middlesex Hospital, of which the Fitzrovia Chapel was once a part. Most of the patients were young gay men facing the prospect of an early death from AIDS; the black-and-white images focus on in four patients in particular, and the partners, friends, family, and doctors who cared for them. The accompanying photobook, published by Trolley Books, also includes comments, stories and tributes from that wider circle of friends and supporters.
At the time many photographers – particularly those from newspapers – refused to enter the wards, scared off by the stigma surrounding the disease and instead trying to shoot them through the windows of the buildings opposite. In taking a more intimate approach Mendel hoped to combat the enormous fear and demonisation around HIV/AIDS, and he commends the bravery of the young men who allowed themselves to be photographed.
“Being allowed into that world, being able to photograph it and be there so openly felt like a huge change in the culture,” says Mendel. “I think people felt like it was time to open things up and not feel so hunted down and closeted.
“The pictures just represent a moment in history when so many young gay men were dying,” he continues. “Of course, as I would explore in my subsequent work, there were and are many, many other sides to it globally. But as an example, at that point there was a sense of an entire community of gay, creative men being completely decimated by it.”
“It’s quite a unique and special thing to have the images shown so close to their origins,” he adds. “At the opening night there were so many people there from that time, it felt profoundly significant. There were nurses who had worked on the ward, a couple of doctors, the consultant who had been in charge. A woman whose brother had died on the ward was there, man whose partner had died, and so on.”
Mendel is also displaying more recent work on HIV in the Chapel – Through Positive Eyes, a large-scale, global photographic and video project he has developed over the past few years with the UCLA Art and Global Health Center. In it, Mendel has stepped away from taking photographs to act as the “frame maker”, organising workshops in Mexico City, Rio de Janerio, Johannesburg, Washington, Los Angeles, Bankok, Mumbai, Port-au-Prince, London and Durban in which the camera is put into the hands of those living with HIV to allow them to document their life experiences themselves.
“The idea is for positive people to be able to tell their own visual stories without being prescribed what to say or do,” he explains. “We’re giving people an open palette and space to make what they feel is right. People living with HIV face many complex issues now – just because there is treatment doesn’t mean the problem is solved. You get a sense of the different stories and narratives that emerge.
“HIV is still a huge issue globally,” he adds. “While there have been massive successes, across parts of Africa and in poorer countries it still affects millions of people. Stigma is still a big killer because a lot of people won’t get tested because of it.”
The significance of showing both bodies of work is not lost on Mendel, who describes them as representing “the two brackets of my 20+ years of working on HIV”. “Also, obviously things have changed,” he says. “Showing the videos from Through Positive Eyes allows us to be updated on what’s going on now, years later.”
The Ward is the first photography exhibition in the Fitzrovia Chapel Lineage programme, which aims to showcase activities which have taken place around the venue. “The programme seeks to unite the history of the chapel as part of the hospital,” says Hannah Watson, director of Trolley Books and trustee of the Chapel. “With its current role as a secular space and its own arts programme in the community.”
And though it’s the first photography show there, both Watson and Mendel agree there is an opportunity to do much more. “It’s an awe-inspiring space,” says Mendel. “I have a sense of it being really important place – there’s potential for it to have a really interesting curatorial journey.”
The Ward is on show at the Fitzrovia Chapel until 03 December, which is open on Sundays and Wednesdays https://fitzroviachapel.org/ward-gideon-mendel/ The Ward is published by Trolley Books, priced £35 https://trolleybooks.com/