Friday, 1 May 2015

The Long Shadow of Chernobyl

quote [ In 2005, I was able to venture deeper into Reactor 4 than any other Western photographer. I photographed areas where workers were only able to work 15 minutes a day?despite wearing all the protective gear. The adrenaline level was incredible. In 2013, I went back to the reactor and was able to go even further than before. Deep inside a dark hallway, the engineer accompanying me pried open a heavy metal door.

I was only able to fire off a few quick flashes before he pulled me out, but I captured the clock on the wall. It stood frozen at 1:23 AM?the moment when the reactor exploded and time in Chernobyl stood still forever. ]

Some amazing photographs and stories. Full text and more in extended.

Main interview:
This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.

Twenty-nine years ago, when I was one year old, I lived with my parents in the small Ukrainian town of Pripyat?about 60 miles away from Kiev. This would be a fairly ordinary story, if the town I lived in wasn't under two away from the Chernobyl power plant. That and the fact that my dad worked as an engineer there, operating one of the nuclear reactors.

At the time, the average age of people living in Pripyat was about 26 years old. Every single person living there (about 50,000) had to leave within 36 hours after Reactor 4 exploded during a system test, releasing a plume of highly radioactive fallout into the atmosphere. To this day, this is the worst nuclear accident in history.

The catastrophe shaped my life, as well as the lives of thousands of other people, many of whom, including my father Constantine, are no longer alive today due to the impact the radioactivity had on their health.

Photographer Gerd Ludwig's latest series The Long Shadow of Chernobyl (Edition Lammerhuber, 2014) is the accumulated result of nine trips, spanning 20 years, to the exclusion zone surrounding the disaster site. I had the privilege to chat with him about his photography and share some of our experiences from the zone.

VICE: You work a lot in former Soviet countries. Where did that interest come from?
Gerd Ludwig: It started when I was young. During WWII, my father was drafted by the German army and was actually among the troops that invaded the Soviet Union. He battled all the way to Stalingrad. When he returned, his experiences became my bedtime stories. As I started to grow up, I began to ask questions. His explanations weren't really enough, I grew up with this incredible feeling of guilt towards Russia and the other Soviet Republics. So much so that when I shot my first assignment in Russia for Geo Magazine, I didn't allow myself to take any critical photos of Russia?a country that had suffered so terribly from the German invasion.

How did you end up photographing Chernobyl?
My second major assignment was for National Geographic in 1993?that was on pollution in the Post-Soviet republics. It was then that I felt a need to include Chernobyl. It was only supposed to be a small segment, but it ended up being a story in itself. I began to develop a deeper interest in Chernobyl as a subject, and I knew I'd have to return. It actually took me 11 years to go back. I returned in 2005, 2011 and 2013, for an extended period of time. I photographed the victims, the ghost town of Pripyat, the Exclusion Zone, the reactor itself, and the areas affected by the fallout in both Belarus and Ukraine.

I actually went to Chernobyl to photograph my own story on several occasions. The accident drastically altered our lives. In many ways, all of my desires and passions sprung from the ruins of Chernobyl. I sometimes wonder what my life would be like if the accident hadn't happened. I'd probably still live there, have a husband and a couple of kids and maybe even be a nuclear physicist myself.
So you were there when the whole thing happened?

Yeah, we lived in Pripyat and my father operated Reactor 2 . He had the late shift the night of the accident. His friends were working in the control room of Reactor 4. He told me how he saw them running to fix the situation?even though there was nothing they could have done. My father called my mom after his shift and told her to close the windows and stay inside; he couldn't say why. I know they had to sign some sort of nondisclosure agreement. My mom once told me about her friends going to the beach that day despite her warning them: They hadn't a clue about the danger.

Were you afraid the first time you went there? Did you feel like you were risking your health?
I was quite prepared for my first trip, I did about four weeks of research. I traveled with a whole case of protective gear, which included Geiger counters, gas masks, dosimeters, boot covers, and protective overalls. But when I showed up in Chernobyl, officials asked me not to wear any of my protective gear, so as not to scare people who worked there without any. When I visited the graveyard of Pripyat?a highly contaminated area?or returnees at their homes, I wasn't wearing any protection. As a photographer, you walk a fine line, and you need people's cooperation to get the job done. In Chernobyl, I ate eggs, fish, and potatoes that were all produced in the contaminated zone. I was concerned, but I wasn't really scared.

Do you think that getting a good photograph is worth these risks?
As journalists, we often put ourselves into risky environments. But we do this on behalf of the innocent victims?to get their story, which otherwise wouldn't be heard. To be with these people, to eat and drink with them is to hear their pain and to see their soul.

Was anyone hostile towards you?
Regardless of where you are, you'll always find the occasional hostile person. Generally speaking, the people I've photographed have been appreciative. When I am on an assignment for National Geographic, I'm not just there for a few hours. I don't just walk into people's lives as a body with a camera instead of a head. I meet each of them as a person firstly. It's only after talking with them and sharing my story, that I expect them to open up to me. That's when I start unpacking my camera. I consider these people heroic for sharing their stories. I have to be aware that by pointing my camera at suffering people, I increase their sorrow and momentarily make their memories more painful.

You spent a lot of time photographing the impact of radiation on people's health. The photographs of the disabled children probably affected me the most.
The consequences of the Chernobyl accident on people's health are quite controversial in the scientific community. But there's statistics that can't be disputed?the level of leukemia and other cancers is far higher in the affected areas than outside. In Gomel?a Southern region of Belarus heavily affected by the disaster?I met young women from the contaminated zone who were extremely worried for the wellbeing of their future children. Just that fear and stress alone can be detrimental to ones health. While I am aware that due to the heritage of the Soviet system, parents often give up disabled children more easily than in Western countries, I found that the Belarusian government is really downplaying the role of Chernobyl in the occurrence of developmental disabilities. The few people who dare to speak openly about this see a clear connection between the increasing health problems and the radioactivity released by the disaster.

What was your most striking experience in the zone?
In 2005, I was able to venture deeper into Reactor 4 than any other Western photographer. I photographed areas where workers were only able to work 15 minutes a day?despite wearing all the protective gear. The adrenaline level was incredible. In 2013, I went back to the reactor and was able to go even further than before. Deep inside a dark hallway, the engineer accompanying me pried open a heavy metal door.

I was only able to fire off a few quick flashes before he pulled me out, but I captured the clock on the wall. It stood frozen at 1:23 AM?the moment when the reactor exploded and time in Chernobyl stood still forever.

How do you feel about nuclear power, and what do you want to tell people with your pictures?
I don't like to label myself or walk around with some sort of anti-nuclear badge pinned to my jacket. People assume far too quickly that I'm prejudiced. I want my pictures to speak for themselves. I photograph what I see and want the viewer to draw their own conclusions. But I doubt that after looking at my photographs, anyone could still consider nuclear power to be safe.

Are you planning to return to Chernobyl or is it a closed page for you? And what about other nuclear accidents, like Fukushima?
I have no plans to go to Fukushima. I'm not going to chase every nuclear disaster in the world. I am, however, planning to publish another book on Chernobyl for the 30th anniversary?a smaller collection of still-lives. I know my work there is not done. The current book is a cesura?a pause, in order to look back and then continue on further.

Photogs site:

More photos/stories:

The animals adapt:

[SFW] [people] [+5 Interesting]
[by rash1@10:13pmGMT]


Bleb said @ 11:45pm GMT on 1st May [Score:3]
29 years down, 19971 to go.
HP Lovekraftwerk said @ 2:01am GMT on 2nd May
Radiation is such an odd duck.

I grew up with it being considered "magical." I'm a sucker for Fallout and 1st Edition Gamma World, and I'll still suspend my disbelief to allow for mutated animals and technology that still works after a massive EMP and 100+ years of neglect.

However, the question of how long radiation sticks around and would be problematic seems to have changed remarkably. As I understand it, Chernobyl will be too hot to go inside for long (some parts like the Elephant Foot, for centuries if not thousands of years).

The outside, while still not a great place to go for your health, isn't as bad as was thought originally. Radioactive materials seem to filter down below the surface fairly quickly as these things go.

Now, lest anyone think I'm apologizing for nuclear power/weapons, I'm not. I'm just wondering: If I blow up the town of Megaton in Fallout, how long will it stay uninhabitable? I get that a bomb is different than a melted-down reactor core, but all the old post-apoc stories I read as a kid had cities that were nuked staying off-limits for hundreds of years or more because everyone who went in would die of rad poisoning (or get eaten by radioactive mutants). Is the fallout in Fallout completely off base? I know the water quest is kind of dumb, unless something was constantly pumping some kind of radioactive material into the rivers, but would bomb craters still be too dangerous to camp out in 200 years after they were made?
ENZ said @ 2:12am GMT on 2nd May
What I found more unbelievable in Fallout was how many wrecked cars and piles of rubble there were strewn about in what was supposed to be major settlements that's been populated for decades. 200 years since the war, yet everyone's still living like refugees. Even the rich.
HP Lovekraftwerk said @ 2:23am GMT on 2nd May
I chalked that up to living in a war zone coupled with the inability to manufacture the replacement materials to repair things. I also found the idea that the food was still "good" after 200 years was both due to radiation sterilizing it along with craploads of preservatives (and maybe irradiation as a part of the manufacturing process, I suppose, like Nuka Cola).

The cars were a head-scratcher, but being able to make them explode, sometimes in chain reactions, made up for a lot. :)

That said, some place like Arroyo, where they'd built "new" adobe homes, would've been nice in Fallout New Vegas.
ENZ said @ 2:50am GMT on 2nd May
You don't really need heavy manufacturing to prop up a collapsed roof and sweep up the debris. Hell, after 200 years you'd think they would have long since completely torn down those dilapidated buildings and built something new.

I really like the Fallout games, but I prefer the tone and settings of the STALKER and Metro series. It feels more real because the shit going down there is recent, so it makes sense that things wouldn't have bounced back. 200 years is a bloody long time for post-apocalypse. Hopefully Fallout 4 takes us to the Commonwealth, those assholes sound like they got their shit together.
HP Lovekraftwerk said @ 3:24am GMT on 2nd May
That's the rumor, though they haven't even released one bit of concept art yet.

I'm hoping they finally make a game where the main quest isn't something most people avoid in favor of everything else.
HP Lovekraftwerk said @ 5:02am GMT on 2nd May
I did some poking around the Vault Wiki, and apparently the rich in Tenpenny Tower are recent arrivals, or at least, Tenpenny is (having come from the UK).

In New Vegas, I think the strip is a recent revitalization as every family with a casino (apart form maybe the White Glove Society) used to be desert tribals until House let them in and they adopted their Vegas-esque personas.

On a side note, one thing that irked me from New Vegas was a bit of dialog House has that the game never acknowledges. If you go through his dialog trees, he tells you his plans for Hoover Dam. He plans on kicking out the NCR and everyone else, using it for the Strip which will fund his plans of using the tech at Repcon to get man conquering the solar system and to the stars in the next 100 years. When I heard that on my first playthrough, I thought "YES! That's what I'D do! Rebuild and conquer space! Let's go!" But if you win for House, it just talks about how the strip is a cold place watched over by House's omnipresent securitrons.

I wanted my space ending, dammit!
pleaides said @ 8:20am GMT on 2nd May
HP Lovekraftwerk said @ 8:37am GMT on 2nd May
Now you've made me want to see the Mystery Machine parked near Pripyat.
Bleb said @ 2:51am GMT on 3rd May
"Now to see who the real Green Ghost was... old man Reagan?!"

Post a comment
[note: if you are replying to a specific comment, then click the reply link on that comment instead]

You must be logged in to comment on posts.

Posts of Import
SE v2 Closed BETA
First Post
Subscriptions and Things

Karma Rankings