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 100 km away from Kiev. This would be a fairly ordinary story, if the town I lived in wasn't three kilometres 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. 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.
You work a lot in the Post Soviet countries. Where did that interest come from?
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 mum 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 mum 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 travelled 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 leukaemia 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 1:23AM – 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 caesura – a pause, in order to look back and then continue on further.
You can see more of Gerd Ludwig's work and buy signed copies of his book "The Long Shadow of Chernobyl" on his website. His award-winning iPad App is currently under reconstruction but will be available again soon from the iTunes store. You can also follow him on Instagram.