I had a lot of reasons for wanting to do this project. My family lived in the contaminated area for 8 years before we immigrated to the United States and we still have friends who are to this day suffering from the effects of long-term radiation exposure. I wanted to bring more attention to this problem. I wanted to help. And, not to seem selfish, I wanted to get noticed as a photographer.
When I first began to prepare for this documentary things went really well. I made arrangements with a Ukrainian company called Solo East Travel to take me to Chernobyl. I met two wonderful women, Ostrovskaya of “Humanity for Chernobyl” and Particia O’Brien of “Children of Chernobyl”, who are truly an inspiration in their dedication to the cause. I read a number of books and articles and looked at photoessays done by other photographers.
I wanted more than to simply photograph the wasteland that is now Chernobyl. I wanted to get the human side of the story, to speak to people who participated in the cleanup, to go to hospitals and photograph children affected by radiation exposure.
That’s where things didn’t go as planned. I spent hours and hundreds of dollars on international phone calls trying to obtain permission to interview and photograph hospital patients and staff. I spoke to everyone I could think off, including the secretary to the Minister of the Foreign Affairs of Belarus. I got nowhere. Both Belarus and Ukraine refused to accredit me as an independent journalist; apparently the only way to get accreditation and needed permits is to be affiliated with a major news agency.
I began calling private organizations, but it seemed like most of them were too afraid of publicity, especially the ones in Belarus. Even those organizations that agreed to help me backed out at the last moment. The only organization that granted me an interview was the UNESCO-sponsored Borodianka Center for Help to Chernobyl Victims.
I did speak to a number of private individuals, people who refused to evacuate their homes and continued to live in and around Chernobyl, people who left everything behind and moved to other cities and the most difficult of all, people who lost loved ones. Most of the people I spoke with and photographed asked me not publish their photos and stories – the official government policy in Belarus is that there are no long-term consequences of Chernobyl’s catastrophe.
Even though I did not fully achieve what I set out to do I came back with a different perspective on my own life as well as lives of many people around me. We are spoiled by creature comforts and tend to electricity outages or a minor traffic incidents as if they were the end of the world. Yes, somewhere in the back of our minds we know that there are people whose situations are thousands of times worse than anything we could possibly imagine (we certainly see enough commercials about such people on TV). However, it is a completely different thing to see someone’s suffering
up close and personal, to talk to someone who truly lost everything.
If you want to find out more about the Chernobyl catastrophe, check out the official Chernobyl website at http://www.chernobyl.info. If you can afford it, please donate to one of the following organizations:
- Humanity for Chernobyl (http://www.chernobylinfo.com/)
- Children of Chernobyl (http://www.ccpusa.org/)