Revisiting Gideon Mendel’s AIDS-ward photographs, 30 years on

View Gallery 6 Photos
© Gideon Mendel

The South African’s photographs of tragedy and vitality are on show in London, just a stone’s throw from the sites of the original specialist centres at Middlesex Hospital

In 1992, Gideon Mendel returned from Somalia, where he had been photographing the first months of the famine following the civil war. It was a “horrible experience” that left him physically ill and emotionally distressed, the South African photographer remembers. Returning to England, he was isolated in a tropical disease ward at London’s Middlesex Hospital. 

It was here that Mendel first encountered the neighbouring Broderip and Charles Bell wards, specialist units treating exclusively HIV/AIDS patients (nearly all young gay men). The work of the wards, the first of their kind in the UK, was kept a secret. “There were rumours that tabloid photojournalists were camped in the building across the street,” Mendel recalls. Cameras were not allowed in, the risk of outing and exposing the patients too high. “A fear of the camera,” as Mendel describes it.

At the time, Mendel was working with Network Photographers, a left-wing photo agency and collective directed by queer activist Stephen Mayes. The two pitched a photo series of life on the wards to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Terrence Higgins Trust, a charity providing services relating to HIV/AIDS. After negotiations with the hospital staff, Mendel began shooting, though he only documented those who offered clear, informed consent for his project.

The result was The Ward, a social documentary series following the daily lives of the patients. Some of Mendel’s images have developed lives of their own, becoming iconic fixtures within queer visual culture. In one image, John, a resident, lies in bed with his partner, stealing a kiss. The jarring metal hospital bed frames the couple, a reminder of the locale. The pair seem at home in the space, sharing a faint grin as they embrace. 

Now Mendel is revisiting the project with a new photobook and exhibition, commemorating 40 years of the Terrence Higgins Trust. The Ward Revisited is displayed within Fitzrovia Chapel, the only remaining building of the London Middlesex Hospital, which closed in 2005.

Mendel’s work can be described as struggle photography, a nod to his three primary subjects over the past decades: Apartheid in his native South Africa; HIV/AIDS; and the Climate Crisis. He describes his style as “mutated” photojournalism, borrowing from portrait and vernacular photography to create a keenly social practice. The Ward collects dramatic tableaux that focus on what happens between subjects, as opposed to what happens to them.

Describing it as “the greatest part of [his] career,” The Ward focuses on emotional connections, not illness itself. Mendel focused on four patients; John, Ian, Steven, and Andre. Unlike other hospital wards, the Broderip mostly accommodated young gay men, full of life, energy, and a hunger for fun. Mendel captures just this – they gossip, play with family, embrace, and hang out as they would outside of the hospital.

“I didn’t want to photograph sick people on boards,” Mendel explains. He talks about his subjects with a reminiscence evoking old school memories, like outtakes from a social gathering. “I spent so much time not photographing, instead just watching and listening,” Mendel says. 

The first film in the exhibition is a “dissection” of The Ward, including previously unseen works. Contrasting this is a new short film in which staff and family reflect on the joys of the space: parties, extravagant furniture, pet goldfish and jokes.

Jane Bruton, who worked as a sister on the ward, is interviewed in the new film. “The photographs show exactly what was going on – the humanity,” she explains. Originally, Bruton was opposed to Mendel’s project, but retracted when she saw the positive effect it had on the patients. “[Mendel] came along and put the feeling of the ward into something you can understand, something words can’t express.”

In leaving behind the detached conventions of documentary photography, Mendel was able to create an ethical and care-led project, something far more significant than the tabloids whose attempts to expose patients produced distressing and often insensitive images.

Instead, Mendel took an unfolding tragedy and turned it into a family album, expressing a deep sadness, but an even stronger camaraderie. Tragically, in the years following The Ward’s creation, John, Ian, Steven, and Andre all passed away. But on the ward, and in Mendel’s photographs, these men lived. And more than that, they had a good time.

Gideon Mendel’s The Ward Revisited is at The Fitzrovia Chapel, London, until 5 February

Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.