Chernobyl’s Enduring Legacy

The Photo Blog
March 19 2014 11:05 AM

Chernobyl’s Enduring Legacy

Workers wearing plastic suits and respirators for protection pause on their way to drill holes for support rods inside the shaky concrete sarcophagus, a structure hastily built after the explosion to isolate the radioactive rubble of Reactor No. 4. They keep the deteriorating enclosure standing until a replacement can be built. Radiation inside is so high that they are allowed to work only one shift of 15 minutes per day.

Gerd Ludwig

It’s been almost 28 years since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, but if photographer Gerd Ludwig’s extensive reporting in and around the power plant has taught him anything, it’s that the story of the disaster is far from over. During the last 20 years, Ludwig has returned to Chernobyl several times to document the lasting impact of the destruction on the people and places inside the exclusion zone. Now, he’s raising money on Kickstarter to collect his images in a photo book called The Long Shadow of Chernobyl.

Ludwig first visited Chernobyl in 1993 for a National Geographic story on pollution in the former Soviet Union. Access to Chernobyl was limited then, but after extensive negotiations, the local police force agreed to show him around in a school bus. During that trip, Ludwig was able to meet with some of the several hundred elderly people who had decided to ignore radiation levels and resettle without permission inside the exclusion zone. “At first Ukrainian officials discouraged them, branding them as illegal residents, but soon turned a blind eye, realizing that they preferred to die on their own contaminated soil instead of a broken heart in anonymous city suburbs,” Ludwig said via email.

Kharytina Desha, 92, is one of the few people who have returned to their village homes inside the exclusion zone. Although surrounded by devastation and isolation, she prefers to die on her own soil.

Gerd Ludwig

Chairs, toys, and gas masks in an abandoned kindergarten classroom. Fewer buildings now bear witness to the hasty departure of their former residents; instead, there are signs of the visitors’ need to simplify the message. Most noticeably, dolls, like this one carefully arranged next to a gas mask, have become the standard motif.

Gerd Ludwig

On April 26, 1986, operators in this control room of Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant committed a fatal series of errors during a safety test, triggering a reactor meltdown that resulted in the world's largest nuclear accident to date.

Gerd Ludwig

When he returned in 2005, again on assignment for National Geographic, the thawing of bureaucratic barriers in Ukraine allowed Ludwig to move more freely within the exclusion zone and enter the highly contaminated Reactor No. 4. “We had to move fast. The radiation levels in this area were so high that, despite our protective gear, access was limited to a maximum of 15 minutes per day. It was the most challenging photographic situation I’ve ever encountered,” Ludwig said. “The space was dark, loud, and claustrophobic. We rushed through dimly lit tunnels strewn with wires, pieces of shredded metal and other debris, and I struggled not to trip. While photographing, I needed to dodge the spray of sparks from the drillers in highly contaminated concrete dust, and I knew that I had less than 15 minutes to capture impacting images of an environment that few have ever seen and that I might never access again. The adrenaline surge was extraordinary.”


He returned to Chernobyl with partial funding from Kickstarter donors in March 2011. As Ludwig sat with one of the liquidators, the name for people who handle the cleanup and containment efforts, news of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan appeared on television. “Many commentators and politicians in the West considered the Chernobyl accident a result of Soviet incompetence, inefficiency, and ignorance. However, in light of the catastrophe at the Fukushima nuclear power plant following the earthquake in Japan, we need to understand that accidents like Chernobyl are a possible outcome of nuclear power—anytime, anywhere,” he said.

Suffering from thyroid cancer, Oleg Shapiro, 54, and Dima Bogdanovich, 13, receive care at a thyroid hospital in Minsk, Belarus. As a liquidator who helped clean up the accident, Oleg was exposed to extreme levels of radiation. This was his third thyroid operation. Dima’s mother claims that Chernobyl’s nuclear fallout is responsible for her son’s cancer, but Belarusian officials are often instructed to downplay the severity of the radiation.

Gerd Ludwig

Victor Gaydak, 70, a liquidator of the Chernobyl accident, watches news of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. A major in the army, he was on duty when the Chernobyl explosion occurred. After the disaster, he had two heart attacks and developed severe stomach cancer. He now lives with his family in a suburb of Kiev, Ukraine, where more than one-third of the population was relocated after Chernobyl.

Gerd Ludwig

When Soviet authorities finally ordered the evacuation, residents’ hasty departure often meant leaving behind their most personal belongings. The Soviet Union didn't admit that an accident had occurred until two days after the explosion, when the nuclear fallout cloud reached Sweden and scientists there noticed contamination on their shoes before entering their own nuclear power plant.

Gerd Ludwig

Severely physically and mentally handicapped, 5-year-old Igor was given up by his parents and now lives at a children’s mental asylum, which cares for abandoned and orphaned children with disabilities. It is one of several such facilities in rural southern Belarus receiving support from Chernobyl Children International.

Gerd Ludwig

During his most recent trip last year, Ludwig saw progress on the construction of the New Safe Confinement, a high-tech dome that will help shield the reactor from further deterioration as robots begin the delicate dismantling and decontamination process. Outside the facility, Ludwig visited buildings in the city of Pripyat, Ukraine, which have begun to crumble and collapse. “Scenes inside the Chernobyl zone are certainly changing faster today than before, and that gives me a greater sense of duty to capture these before they are gone forever,” he said.

Ludwig continues his work in Chernobyl mostly out of a responsibility to those who still feel the effects of the disaster, including children suffering from mental impairments and physical disorders and liquidators suffering from cancer. “While covering this story, I met many caring and courageous people who allowed me to expose their suffering. They generally realize that me showing their fate is not going to change their life any more. However, many of them wanted their situation to be known solely in the hope of contributing to the cause that tragedies like Chernobyl may be prevented in the future,” he said.

Ludwig’s Kickstarter campaign ends April 20.

The force of the Chernobyl explosions literally stopped time: The rusty clock inside this room in Reactor No. 4 indicates the time of the explosion. Nearly three decades later, radiation here is still so high that access is limited to a few brief seconds.

Gerd Ludwig

From the rooftops of the nearby city of Pripyat, Ukraine, the first section of the New Safe Confinement can be seen. The New Safe Confinement, a 29,000-ton metal arc, will eventually slide over the existing sarcophagus to allow deconstruction of the ailing shelter.

Gerd Ludwig

Trees grow in an abandoned Pripyat school. Today, nature is slowly dismantling the city, thriving among the evacuated homes and buildings and standing in stark contrast to the fear-plagued lives of the people who survived the disaster.

Gerd Ludwig

The empty schools and kindergarten rooms in Pripyat—once the largest town in the exclusion zone with 50,000 inhabitants—are still a silent testament to the sudden and tragic departure. Due to decay, this section of the school building has collapsed.

Gerd Ludwig

The evacuated city of Pripyat, once brimming with life, is now a chilling ghost town. For an exiled resident, the stillness of a city boulevard stirs memories of her former life. In her hand is an old photo of the same street years earlier.

Gerd Ludwig


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