Inside the Belarusian Institutions for Chernobyl Radiation Victims
Photographer Jadwiga Bronte visited the "internats" of Belarus—institutions that are part asylum, part orphanage, and part hospice—for those affected by the fallout of the Chernobyl disaster 30 years ago.
Starting today, students in the MA Photography course at the London College of Communication will be exhibiting their final projects. There was no specific brief, but the title chosen for the show—"In the Forest of Things"—is inspired by a quote from journalist Ryszard Kapuściński, in which he states that, to tell authentic stories, one must "[penetrate them] as deeply as possible." We spoke to a few of the photography students about their chosen case studies ahead of the show.
The Chernobyl disaster took place 30 years ago this April, but its effects are still being felt. The meltdown of the nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine thrust a huge amount of radioactive particles into the Earth's atmosphere, contaminating much of the surrounding area, with neighboring Belarus taking 70 percent of the fallout.
In her photo series "The Invisible People of Belarus," photographer Jadwiga Bronte explored the effects of the Chernobyl disaster on the people of Belarus, specifically those living in governmental institutions called "internats." These institutions are part asylum, part orphanage, and part hospice, where thousands of Belarusians spend their lives, hidden from public view, often "handed over" to the government by relatives soon after birth.
I spoke to Jadwiga about her project.
VICE: What drew you to the story of the internats?
Jadwiga Bronte: This topic has always been very personal to me. I was born in neighboring Poland, a satellite state of the USSR at the time of the Chernobyl disaster. After learning more about the aftermath of this disaster from an amazing photo essay—"Chernobyl Legacy," by Paul Fusco—I felt like it was my duty to go to Belarus and work on this subject.
What surprised me the most was that it wasn't just victims of the Chernobyl disaster that were housed in these institutions. Literally anyone considered by the Belarusian government as "different" can be removed from society and locked away.
Photographing vulnerable people obviously comes with many ethical implications. I feel like you've handled this project well, but did you have any concerns ahead of shooting?
Issues with visual representation have been a big part of photography for a long time, especially when it comes to vulnerable people. Picturing disability is an extremely sensitive topic, which always incorporates the notion of ethics and aesthetics. Documentary photographers and photojournalists have been criticized for their approaches and aesthetic choices on many occasions, and there's a reason why there are almost no photographs of disabled people nowadays; it might be because of the past approach to this topic and the huge issues with "good representation" of "otherness." Disabled people became almost a metaphor for "otherness."
According to the research into visual representation of disabled people I undertook this year, our judgment towards ethics in photography changes by knowing when and why the picture is taken. My awareness of the historical approaches around these topics became fundamental to my approach to the project in Belarus; it kept me focused on my intentions every single time I took a picture.
For me, the residents of the institutions I visited are amazing people, beautiful and strong. Through my work I want to show that disabled people are capable of studying, working, building lasting relationships, and contributing to society. I feel that there is some raw happiness in most of my portraits. I hope the viewers can see it, too. Working on such a delicate topic is difficult; there will always be some criticism. However, I believe people should always be aware.
Did you face any challenges working in the internats?
I'd never worked on a project around mentally disabled people before, so my main concern was not to create stressful situations or cause anxiety.
What would you like to see changed in regards to the internats? How do you think the problem could be solved?
To change the mentality of Belarusian people by teaching them their own hidden history and making them more aware of what is going on in their own country. Disabled people in general are certainly still something of a taboo in Belarus, and often abandoning them—or "giving them away" [to the government]—is easier than being exiled from the local community. I would love for these people to be acknowledged, accepted, and allowed to be a part of society.
Also, I believe people in Europe should be aware of the ongoing problems with human rights violations, poor health care, and starvation, which very often come with lack of money and knowledge. People like to think that all those issues are typically more prevalent in third-word countries, not on the EU's doorstep.
There is one photo of what looks like a mural of a woman. What was the significance behind that?
It is an old picture of a woman, a mother of a "resident" at the hospice. It is very rare that residents have pictures of their parents, as most were abandoned just after birth.
However, for me personally this picture has two meanings. Firstly, it is a metaphor for the passing of time, still alive Soviet mentality and a reminder that this issue has been around for a long time. And secondly, these invisible people may stay invisible and there may be nobody to remember them after all. It could be that a picture might be the only proof of their existence.
See more photos from Jadwiga's project, as well as the final projects from other photographers in his course, at the LCC MA show, open from 10 AM to 5 PM, Monday to Saturday, from January 15 to 23, at the London College of Communication.