Gerd Ludwig, in his series and photobook The Long Shadow of Chernobyl, captures the aftermath of the infamous Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine, the Exclusion zone, and the abandoned city of Pripiyat. This year marks the 29th anniversary, and it’s clear his purview, curation of documentation and citizen narratives, focalizes the reality of Chernobyl’s victims (upward of 9000 citizens that will deal with the long-term effects of radiation), as well as the desolate landscape of these locations in its aftermath.
“As engaged photographers,” says Ludwig, “we often report about human tragedies in the face of disaster, and take our cameras to uncharted areas with the understanding that our explorations are not without personal risk. We do this out of a deep commitment to important stories told on behalf of otherwise voiceless victims.”
Unfortunately, Chernobyl is not the only incident in a long list of ignored consequences that accompany nuclear power and its “regulations”. The Fukushima disaster in Japan caused by failed nuclear power reactors in 2011 has it’s own ramifications to contend with. There is no real clean-up, no escape. Like grief, there is an “it” to live with, embodied and not, embedded in the language of everyday living. “While television audiences watched the nightly news of the nuclear tragedy unfold in Japan,others were experiencing the aftermath of a nuclear disaster firsthand. They were traveling to Chernobyl – as tourists.”
Because there is still recovery and surviving to do, as evidenced by the return to the Exclusion zone where “Kharytina Desha, 92, is one of the few elderly people who have returned to their village homes … Although surrounded by devastation and isolation, she prefers to die on her own soil.” There are countless stories. “Suffering from thyroid cancer, Oleg Shapiro, 54, and Dima Bogdanovich, 13, receive care at a thyroid hospital in Minsk, where surgery is performed daily. As a liquidator, Oleg was exposed to extreme levels of radiation. This was his third thyroid operation. Dima’s mother claims that Chernobyl’s nuclear fallout is responsible for her son’s cancer, but Belarusian officials are often instructed to downplay the severity of the radiation.”
Ludwig navigates a number of fractured perspectives, image laden with government documentation, and doesn’t shy away from a level of responsibility to both. He is engaged, and what pulls him into the belly of the destruction is the very thing that drives his work toward empathy; not in the quotidian sense of sentimentality. There is no room for that, here or here. But there is a sense that more intention toward our place as humans in the world, is not absolved from our responsibility in taking care of the world in which we live. Ludwig documents man-made disasters, and places the lyrical “I” in the crux of our own making. We are not exempt from our progress.
Readers/viewers are bombarded with faces and stories, with the juxtaposition of scaffolding and absence; of orphans in Foucault’s heterotopic sense, and of actual children left behind. None of this or them can be forgotten.
And we are not made better from bearing witness. But we are open-eyed, and hopefully, paying attention.
Visit http://www.longshadowofchernobyl.com to purchase and learn more about the photobook, additional context and resources, and to receive updates on forthcoming literature and exhibitions as this project unfolds.
Workers wearing plastic suits and respirators for protection pause briefly on their way to drill holes for support rods inside the shaky concrete sarcophagus, a structure hastily built after the explosion to isolate the radioactive rubble of Reactor #4. Their job is to keep the deteriorating enclosure standing until a planned replacement can be built. It is hazardous work: radiation inside is so high that they constantly need to monitor their Geiger counters – and are allowed to work only one shift of 15 minutes per day.
On April 26, 1986, operators in this control room of reactor #4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant committed a fatal series of errors during a safety-test, triggering a reactor meltdown that resulted in the world’s largest nuclear accident to date.
Nineteen years after the accident, the empty schools and kindergarten rooms in Pripyat – once the largest town in the Exclusion Zone with 50,000 inhabitants – are still a silent testament to the sudden and tragic departure. Due to decay, this section of the school building has meanwhile collapsed.
Severely physically and mentally handicapped, 5-year-old Igor was given up by his parents and now lives at a children’s mental asylum, which cares for abandoned and orphaned children with disabilities. It is one of several such facilities in rural southern Belarus receiving support from Chernobyl Children International, an aid organization established in 1991 in the aftermath of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
A radiation sign along the road near Pripyat warns of the menace. The tranquility of the sight on an evening of heavy snowfall belies the lingering danger looming in the peaceful winter landscape.
Suffering from thyroid cancer, Oleg Shapiro, 54, and Dima Bogdanovich, 13, receive care at a thyroid hospital in Minsk, where surgery is performed daily. As a liquidator, Oleg was exposed to extreme levels of radiation. This was his third thyroid operation. Dima’s mother claims that Chernobyl’s nuclear fallout is responsible for her son’s cancer, but Belarusian officials are often instructed to downplay the severity of the radiation.
The evacuated city of Pripyat, once brimming with life, is now a chilling ghost town. For an exiled resident, the stillness of a city boulevard stirs memories of her former life. In her hand is an old photo of the same street years earlier.
Kharytina Desha, 92, is one of the few elderly people who have returned to their village homes inside the Exclusion Zone. Although surrounded by devastation and isolation, she prefers to die on her own soil.
Victor Gaydak, 70, a liquidator of the Chernobyl accident, watches news of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. A major in the army, he was on duty when the Chernobyl explosion occurred. After the disaster, he had two heart attacks and developed severe stomach cancer. Evacuated from Pripyat, he now lives with his family in Troeschina, a suburb of Kiev to which more than one-third of the population was relocated after the Chernobyl accident.
When Soviet authorities finally ordered the evacuation, the residents’ hasty departure often meant leaving behind their most personal belongings. The Soviet Union did not admit to the world that an accident had occurred until two days after the explosion, when the nuclear fallout cloud reached Sweden and scientists there noticed contamination on their shoes before entering their own nuclear power plant.
From the rooftops of the nearby city of Pripyat, the first section of the New Safe Confinement can be seen. The New Safe Confinement, a 29,000 ton metal arc, 105 meters high and 257 meters wide, will eventually slide over the existing sarcophagus to allow deconstruction of the ailing shelter.
Photographer Gerd Ludwig is suited up with protective clothing for a 15-minute entry into the highly contaminated Reactor #4 – the maximum he and the shift workers are allowed to spend inside for a single day.