Where Are Chernobyl’s Children? A Photojournalist’s Honest Project in the Age of Disaster Tourism

National Geographic photographer Gerd Ludwig has spent almost three decades trying to honor the victims of Chernobyl — and watching the world minimize them. He’s getting ready to make another trip. Polarr finds out more…

Polarr: You’re going out of town soon, is that for your exhibit?

Gerd: Yes and no. I am leaving on Monday to go to Germany to visit my mother, then to Hamburg for a couple of days, to Berlin to check out a new assignment location for National Geographic, and from Berlin to Vienna where I will start layout for a new book with my publisher Lammerhuber, and from there straight to Perpignan, where my latest Chernobyl work is part of Visa Pour l’Image [an International Photojournalism Festival].

P: Is that book the next installment of the Chernobyl collection?

G: No, not yet. It’s a totally different subject, a project I have been working on and off again in sleepless nights here in LA. It’s called ‘Sleeping Cars,’ a personal project. I drive around at night in search of cars that are sleeping in solitude, commanding their own space. Most of them are covered, a few sleep in the nude, a few lucky ones get to sleep together, some take naps during the day. It’s hard to describe in words, you have to see it.

P: That seems as far away from Chernobyl as one could get — you’ve worked on quite a range of subjects.

G: Over the years, interests change. As a young photographer, I considered myself a photojournalist, which meant at the time I was jumping from one assignment to the next. Once in a 12 month stretch I hit every continent except for Antarctica. But as I grew up, and became a ‘seasoned photographer,’ to use the American term, I am increasingly inclined to document what I really understand. Based on extensive information, I can go deeper. I found my calling in documenting environmental issues and the monumental changes in the Former Soviet Union.

People living near the zone experience heightened rates of skin diseases and cancers. A boy with dermatitis receives a skin exam. Image copyright Gerd Ludwig.

So, now I consider myself a documentary photographer, somebody who works on a limited number of subjects. Subjects I am very familiar with. I accept other assignments too, like the recent National Geographic story on Food Truck culture in LA. The story was actually an extension of my Sleeping Cars project. National Geographic had published a few of the images of the sleeping cars, and said “why don’t you shoot the food trucks like you shot the sleeping cars?”

P: I loved those, I thought those were very surprising and quirky.

G: Yeah, and I think the connection between my work in the former Soviet Union and on L.A. food trucks is that some of the images were very emotional and moody. Not every story needs to be compelling or shocking. I think what unites my work is that most of the subjects are moody, and photographed with emotion. A great photograph broadens the mind and touches the soul.

Lately, however I find myself drawn to the result of people’s actions, rather than to the action itself. The reason is that today every move gets depicted by someone present with a point-and-shoot or an iPhone; there are amateurs who snap pictures of everything they see. And 30 or 40 or even as recently as 20 years ago, the photographer’s job consisted not only of seeing things, but also of having the technical ability to translate it into an image. Besides the formal ability to frame an image with composition, technical knowledge was required. To set the camera at the right speed, use the appropriate f-stop etc. That aspect has completely vanished, and I think the role of the photographer is changing to a more thoughtful contemplation of what’s happening in our world. So I find myself photographing not what everybody else does, these snappy pictures of the moment, but instead the results of those moments, or the consequences of people’s actions. This led me to document these cars that sit, lonely, by themselves. Living in LA, observing those long lanes of the cars on the freeways I was not interested in photographing the obvious. I was interested in finding out where those cars sleep at night. And I’m currently working on something similar in Chernobyl. Have you seen the Long Shadow of Chernobyl book?

P: I have seen the app but haven’t got my hands on a hard copy of the book.

G: The book contains an essay about the accident written by Gorbachev. He is frail, and he said to my publisher, Lois Lammerhuber, “I’m not going to write something brand-new, but you’re welcome to use this existing essay.” The updated iPad app addresses the tourism in the zone. If you look carefully, you discover a few pictures of alterations created by the tourists. When I went there I was stunned how visitors and tour guides have created their own still life images, so to speak; their own naïve assemblies of things that they find in the zone.

A child’s doll in an abandoned Pripyat school. Via flickr user zoriah.

I was not interested in photographing somebody putting those arrangements together. I was instead fascinated to show these altered realities created by tourists, so they can snap pictures with their iPads, their cameras or iPhones. But instead of photographing them up close like the tourists, I step back and let the arrangements be a surprise artifact within all the destruction.

P: How do you feel about people going and moving things around for the sake of a photograph? You’ve talked about using your camera as a way to channel your grief, but it’s without you intervening in any way. So does that tourism strike you as invasive or disrespectful, or is it just good that people are educating themselves about the disaster in any way?

G: You know, there is a whole mix of emotions that I have there. My initial reaction was disgust. And then I tried to find out why they do it. Of course, at the core there is often thoughtlessness, but there could also be an attempt to make sense of what they see, to make sense of the catastrophe. My initial feeling of being appalled ultimately gave room to curiosity. I myself often photograph to understand. Also, for great documentary photography, time is of the essence. It’s important to first observe, to search for the pictures that really speak to you. Tourists don’t have the time, so they rush through the site. And really, their actions are a reflection of what we are doing in our society: People are changing things around for pictures all the time. People are constantly telling their subjects ‘do this for the camera,’ ‘do that for the camera,’ ‘look here,’ ‘look there.’ The Chernobyl tourists are no different. Because they find it too time consuming when finding a gas mask in one corner and a toy in the other corner of a room, they find it simpler to move the two together.

A small ‘still life’ arranged in Pripyat. Image via flickr user kvitlauk.

Chernobyl is amongst those places where the location stands for the horror. Like Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Stalingrad or Waterloo, the location stands for an unbelievable catastrophe, a world-changing event. And yet the people wouldn’t do to other places what they do at Chernobyl, and I have not figured out how they take the liberty to alter things there. Is it because you don’t see, feel, taste, smell or hear radiation? Or because the tragedy was concealed by Soviet authorities for such a long time? Today even the tour guides create collections of artifacts to make the catastrophe more palatable in a way. And then of course the tourists feel entitled to do the same. In one school, the tour guides hung up gas masks from the ceiling so that elderly tourists don’t need to bend down to photograph them!

P: Did you ever accompany groups on those tours, to see how it’s served up for people when they arrive?

G: Yes, I have accompanied them from when they enter the zone, when the passports get checked, to the end when they buy cheap vodka.

P: What did you think of the tour guides?

G: Some tour guides turn it into a real event. There is one photograph on the iPad app where you see a guide with a contact lens with a radiation symbol on it. Some tour guides are better than others. If you do something like that every day and you need to excite the tourists, you easily get used to it.

P: It makes me think of an instance in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, when he describes visiting civil war battlefields here in the States. Those tours seem very much packaged around the technological innovations of people of the time, and not a lot of the tour is spent thinking about the ends to which those tools were employed, namely to continue enslaving people. It’s a very selective memorial.

G: I have not been on any of the tours here in the US and I don’t know how people behave, but in the Exclusion Zone tourists initially were allowed to fan out by themselves. I ran into one guy who bought his own gas mask for kicks and put it on because he thought it was funny.

In a theme park-ish effort, a Chernobyl tour guide dons a ‘radioactive’ contact lens. Image copyright Gerd Ludwig

Some Eastern European tourist groups usually stop in a shop in Chernobyl — there are two or three shops in Chernobyl for the people that work there, from scientists to cleanup crews — and vodka is cheaper there than in their home countries.

P: You’ve written about how your ideas about Germany and the Soviet Union changed a few times in your early career, and deeply affected the things you were interested in photographing. As important as this project was for your personal development, did you ever weary of it? Did you ever feel like you were ready to give it up?

G: I thought that I would, but then there came all these surprises, such as the tourism in Chernobyl, that I didn’t expect. I ended up doing two Kickstarter campaigns to finance my trips, because magazines were not interested in the work anymore. When I approached traditional media outlets before the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, I was told they considered nuclear accidents occurrences of the past, or as they say in the German language, they are snow from last winter.

So on Kickstarter I argued that magazines and most of the publications have turned to sensationalism and celebrity reporting to make up for the loss of readership. They may not be interested in issues anymore, but I think there still is a demand for issue driven stories. Then, while I was on a Kickstarter-funded trip in Chernobyl, the accident in Fukushima happened, and all of a sudden people realized that it’s neither a thing of the past, nor the result of Soviet ignorance. This kind of disaster can happen anywhere in the world, even in the high-technology countries like Japan.

So, when I went out there, I initially planned to update our material to reflect what was happening on the ground. I expected more deterioration, more of the elderly dying, and the kids who were born with disabilities are getting older. But as it happened, since I was a self assigned, crowd-funded project, I was able to redirect my attention to what I found in the field.

Nuclear cooling tower, Chernobyl. Via flickr user zoriah.

Had I photographed on assignment, let’s say for National Geographic, I would have had to follow a story outline. I would not have been free to easily switch and say oh, the story there is actually the upcoming tourist business. Being able to redirect in the field as a result of crowd-funding was a huge advantage. And the unexpected tourism in the Zone made me fully aware that the story of Chernobyl doesn’t end.

In fact, during my last trip, I found a lot of people from Japan coming to visit Chernobyl, because they had a serious interest in learning what is expected to happen in Fukushima 30 years down the road. I even ran into a former mayor of Hiroshima, and because they had a very legitimate interest, that kind of encounter gave room to more thoughtful reflection on the tourism. That’s why I say I was initially appalled by tourists there, but I do understand that a lot of people come there with a legitimate interest. I think if I continue to find changes on the ground, I’ll continue to make trips. The 30th anniversary is certainly a moment to stop and reflect, and that is coming up on the 26th of April next year.

P: People who returned after the disaster didn’t believe that they were at risk, but now that the new generation is experiencing much greater rates of cancers and skin diseases, it sounds like people broadly attribute these problems to radiation. Do you know how that attitude finally changed even though the government’s official information remains the same?

G: Yes, initially they didn’t believe it. The people living near the plant had a great life, because a lot of money was poured in there. Before the catastrophe, Pripyat, erected in the 1970s for the workers and their families, was a wealthy place — a model town by Soviet standards.

Bumper cars in Pripyat. Image via wikimedia user Shanomag.

I see the older people not only as victims, but also as perpetrators. They were a part of a corrupt system no matter what. The children are the real victims. Many of the older people that I met rearranged themselves within the system; many of them lived in denial, some of them still do. And that’s why I cringed a bit when people said they didn’t know, because there were always ways.

My driver in the zone used to live not that far away from Chernobyl, now his village is about two 2 miles outside of the zone. On April 26, 1986, the day the reactor had blown up at 1:23 am, he got a call at four o’clock in the morning from a friend, who said he could not elaborate, but told him to leave his village right away. Yet, officials only started to evacuate Pripyat only 36 hours later. Most of the people who knew were too scared to talk. So that is why I have mixed feelings, considering the older people victims and perpetrators at the same time. At least a section of them were active perpetrators.

Svetlana Alexievich wrote an amazing book, ‘Voices from Chernobyl,’ in which she interviews people who were affected by Chernobyl. She just lets them talk, she doesn’t inject herself. The resulting book is an incredible document of personal tragedy. I had to put the book down, it made me cry at some points. It helps the reader understand how people insisted they didn’t know about the health hazards, and how they feel betrayed.

Some are open enough to say they weren’t careful enough or critical enough of the system. After all, as Gorbachev says in his essay in my book, Chernobyl contributed to the fall of the system more than his own perestroika. And he was the leader of the Soviet Union at the time!

Chernobyl museum. Image via flickr user ferkel.

P: There are some doctors in your photographs, who even many years later cautioned patients not to talk openly about their diseases as related to the accident.

G: Oh yes, it is a known fact that specifically the government in Belarus tries to downplay the role of the Chernobyl accident. They never like doctors to be very open about it because there is so much fallowed, contaminated land in the south of Belarus, which they are eager to re-cultivate. So the authorities conceal the risk.

In 2005, in advance of the 25th anniversary, I wanted to photograph an orphanage for handicapped children in the Gomel region of Belarus, an area heavily affected by the nuclear fallout. I went there to talk to the director of the orphanage who told me to come back the next day to photograph. (You know, they never allow you to photograph directly when you arrive, because they need to clean up and make everything look wonderful.) I photographed only in those orphanages that receive funds from Chernobyl charities, mostly Western charities that contributed quite a lot of money. So I figured if they get this money from the charities, there must be some connection to Chernobyl.

Parisians gather on the 22nd anniversary of the tragedy, to march to the Areva building, where policemen prevent them from leaving flowers. They hold signs that say, “Hommage aux victimes de Tchernobyl.” Image via flickr user Philippe Leroyer.

I arrived the next morning to be greeted by two men, with cheap suits and attaché cases, looking like the East German Stasi. They were government officials. They asked, “So what do you want to do here?” I said openly, “I want to take photos here because I’m looking for victims from Chernobyl.” Their answer, “None of these kids here are in any way connected with Chernobyl. You know that malformations can happen anywhere, none of this is connected to Chernobyl.”

Even though it was still very early in the morning, I had a great thought — I had obviously already had enough coffee — and I responded, “Okay, if you give it to me in writing that not a single kid here is in any way connected to Chernobyl, I will pack up my bags and my cameras, and I’ll leave.” And then I said, “But of course, we will need to report in National Geographic that because none of the kids’ diseases are related to Chernobyl, you’re no longer interested in receiving funds from Chernobyl charities.”

P: Wow. Power move.

G: You should have seen how fast they changed their minds. “Oh, there may be this child, and may be this one, and, well, the parents of this kid lived in Chernobyl.” All of sudden the whole situation turned. So in that kind of encounter you learn that you cannot trust officials today any more than you could in the past. It’s gotten better in Ukraine, but Belarus was pretty bad.

P: When you spent time in the surrounding towns, did you have trouble getting regular people to open up to you?

G: No, when you connect with them on a personal level it’s all different. However, many of those who returned to their houses within the zone really ignore the danger. They’re telling themselves, “Oh, everything is safe. Look I’m 80 years old and I haven’t died yet, so the radiation can’t be that terrible.” You hear from others who admit that the accident and its fallout were terrible, but I’ve met farmers who planted potatoes and carrots on the land and they think it’s all safe.

A tourist uses a device to measure radiation levels at the plant. Image via flickr user Roman Harek.

I’ve even seen doctors who bring their equipment and catch fish there, even though it’s illegal to hunt or fish there. People also collect mushrooms and other things there illegally; I honestly have to be a bit careful to name names there. But at some point I am going to tell it all.

P: That would be amazing — maybe whenever you decide that you’ve made your last trip. Do you have any plans right now to go back?

G: Yeah, I have plans to go back to Russia — I’m trying to find funding for a major trip. But right now the magazines are really not in the situation they were 25 years ago. So I’m trying to fund that project with private donors and grants. It’s not only much more expensive today, but it’s also very difficult in the current political situation. But I’m hoping to make that happen within the next 5–6 months, so that I can publish a book of my whole work from my work of 25 years in the former Soviet Union. However, that requires expenses in excess of $100,000 for a comprehensive long-term coverage, 3 — to 5 separate trips, of 4 weeks each.

P: I’m interested in your decision to create the app. Can you explain why you felt that was a good way for the project to live?

G: Creating an app, I was able to include a few videos, and make the content overall more affordable. Of course the people have to have an iPad first, but I wanted to make it available at a cheaper price.

P: Given all of the changes that you’ve mentioned in the practice and business of professional photography, has your approach to mentorship has changed at all?

G: Yes, the whole model has changed. I’m trying to be like the young kids, you know, being interested in new technology, not leaving that field to the young ones. That’s another reason why I created the iPad app. Additionally, I was one of the first established photographers to do Kickstarter campaigns. Today’s business model is completely different: 20 years or 25 years ago, I would get my assignment, go into the field, take the photos, turn in the film, and be off on my next story while the magazines were creating the layouts. The days of long back-to-back assignments are gone. All artists today find themselves in a new arena. I have to look for new ways to make a living. Exhibitions, books, print sales, crowd-funding, e-books, apps, lectures, workshops etc.

The abandoned ferris wheel in Pripyat. Image via flickr user zoriah.

It’s very hard, especially for young people, to live off the arts anymore. We are destroying art, we are destroying music, we are destroying culture, if creators cannot make a living off their art. Or we’re handing culture over exclusively to the children of the affluent. Subsequently, we are running the risk that art and music will not become socially relevant anymore.

But today I need to talk, give lectures, host many more exhibits, and spend a certain amount of time feeding social media. But it’s part of the changing dynamic, you know. I promoted my book on- I don’t know how many- blogs. And when I started working on the Chernobyl project on Kickstarter suddenly we needed a Facebook page and Twitter handle and Instagram account. So the business has totally changed. I’m trying to adapt despite my age, and to see what’s out there, to see where the development is happening and which parts could be useful to me. It’s not uncritical change, but it’s not a way of looking at the world and saying, “Oh, I don’t like these changes and I’m going to ignore it, I’m doing it the old way.” It’s a critical curiosity that I have.

P: Could you tell me of some artists, of any kind, whose work inspires you or whom you’re enjoying right now?

G: The list is endless. I was once asked by somebody to give a list of all the people that inspire me in my work and it was a spontaneous list of 50 names which included my then 80-year-old mother, because I looked at her pictures that she used to snap when she was 80 with her cheap camera. And I thought, wow that’s interesting what she sees. So I don’t have one person that I could name, they come from all different fields.

The overgrown Pripyat skyline, with views of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Image via flickr user Andrzej Karon.

They are some of my peers like Lauren Greenfield the awe-inspiring photographer and film maker, to my celebrity photographer friend Douglas Kirkland, who despite his 81 years is constantly telling me what’s new in the market. And to people like Alex Webb, Paolo Pellegrin, David Alan Harvey, Bill Allard… lots of different people that I get. One can find inspiration in everything. My main sources of inspiration are not exclusively photographers or artists, “Oh this is great I want to be like them.” For me, inspiration comes from life, and from constantly observing your surroundings. And that’s why I can’t name specific photographers or artists. Just like life, the group changes constantly.

P: Do you have active ways that you try to collect those observations?

G: I don’t have one specific way. Of course yes talking to people, but constantly observing, observing what is around me, what happens around me, people’s reactions; as a photographer you sometimes become like a psychologist, you watch somebody’s reaction. If for a split-second someone looks away, what does that mean about their inner state? If they don’t look you in the eye? A brief gesture, a faint raising of an eyebrow? The constant and conscious observation is important for me.

P: It seems like your father’s stories about World War II were a really important part of your early interest in photography. How did he feel about the evolution of your work?

G: Oh, he really did not fully comprehend that being an artist could be a way of living, maybe he was right. The story I wrote about him was just a few months before he passed away. I gave it to him to read, but unfortunately he couldn’t comprehend it anymore.

Chernobyl Zone 42. Image via flickr user kvitlauk.

P: Was that hard for you?

G: Well, you know it took me a while to understand my own background here, and where these images came from, when I thought of Russia. But I would say my work is really a way of dealing with my guilt as a member of the post World War II generation in Germany.

P: So it’s been a long two decades of working towards catharsis — do you feel like you’ve reached that point?

G: You will never reach it. No, because to me reaching a goal is not the interesting thing anyway. The movement is the goal, the journey is the reward.

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