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Radioactive landscape

March 18, 2011

Twenty-five years after the nuclear meltdown, Chernobyl is still desolate and radioactive. Photographer Andrej Krementschouk offers a unique perspective on the area, and explains why some people still live there.

An abandoned sports hall in the Chernobyl zone
"Sports hall with high bar" - remants in the Chernobyl zoneImage: Krementschouk

The publication of Andrej Krementschouk's "Chernobyl Zone" is eerily timely given the nuclear crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi power plant that has unfolded following the earthquake and ensuing tsunami on March 11. As the effects of Japan's nuclear fallout unfolds, nuclear power is being questioned altogether.

"Chernobyl Zone" could boost that interest, as people grapple with the consequences of nuclear accidents. As a result of the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986 in what is now Ukraine, thousands of people evacuated the area. Death tolls vary greatly, but cancer rates in the most heavily affected regions have since risen by 40 percent.

Born in Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) in 1973, Andrej Krementschouk moved to Germany in 1997, where he studied photography in Hamburg and later worked for major German publications. "Chernobyl Zone" is coming out this spring as a book, and the Zephyr photography center in Mannheim is showing an exhibition of his photographs starting March 20.

Deutsche Welle: Why did you choose to photograph the area surrounding Chernobyl?

Andrej Krementschouk: It was my first job after my degree. [Germany's] Stern magazine wanted a piece about Belarusian cuisine. The journalist writing the piece wanted to talk about Chernobyl, because of its impact on Belarusian agriculture and food. There was a big argument with the editors, who said we shouldn't go, but the journalist insisted.

Photographer Andrej Krementschouk
Russian-born Krementschouk says the Soviets downplayed the dangerImage: Krementschouk

I was scared and didn't want to expose myself to radiation. It was clear that I wasn't supposed to be going, but when I arrived in Belarus, I was nearby and I just spontaneously decided to do it. I wanted to show Stern that I was good at my job, and so I got a taxi to Mazyr, near Chernobyl.

How did your fears about the radiation impact you?

We were driving through the "zone," and at first it seemed fine. Then I noticed that half of the villages were occupied and the other half empty. The atmosphere was really odd. I read somewhere that you mustn't breathe in the dust in the air, because it's radioactive. We stopped just before the border. I took some pictures, and it got windy and suddenly there was a lot of dust flying about. I totally panicked.

Then we drove on and we ended up in an abandoned village. No one would get out of the car. It was late autumn, really creepy, and I got out and walked around, taking photos. I was sweating like crazy. I felt like I couldn't see the enemy but it was attacking me. I had my Geiger counter with me and the display showed a really high level of radiation. It was like a horror film. At some point, the people still in the car suddenly shouted "Enough! We're going back!" and I got back in really fast and we drove back in silence.

I went back to the area nine times after that.

Why did you keep going back?

As a child, I collected fairy stories with lots of beautiful illustrations, and I still do. When I saw the zone, I felt like I had returned to the world of my childhood. It reminded me of the magical lands in the books - a beautiful place that has been laid to waste by dragons. There's some incredible plant and animal life there, because the area was closed off for so long. But at the same time, you can still see the devastation in the landscape.

I thought I'd try to tell a story with photographs, show the path to this evil. The reactor is the evil, the dragon which has ravaged the area, and I am the knight who goes to find it.

Do you remember the disaster?

I was at school at the time and a lot was kept quiet, and no one knew what had happened exactly. The authorities said that it wasn't serious.

The only thing they told us was that we should wash ourselves. We just laughed at that. But they were right. If you get these tiny radioactive particles on your body, you have to keep washing, so they don't get into your skin.

Photo from the Chernobyl zone by Andrej Krementschouk
Today, the Chernobyl area is largely desolateImage: Krementschouk

You photographed the people who refused to leave the area after the explosion or those who have since returned. Why do they stay there?

It's peaceful there. The older people can escape modern Russia, with all its corruption and danger, and stay in a place where nothing much has changed since communism. Ironically, they feel safer there. It's a familiar place, where they can live in the past.

They see radiation as a psychological thing. Many of them say that a lot of people died because they gave themselves over to fear. Whether that's true or not is debatable. Alcoholism seems to be the real killer in the area.

The first person I talked to there was a woman working in a church just outside the zone. I asked her whether many people had died from the effects of radiation. She just looked at me and said "Do you know how many people here have died from drinking?" Lots of people in that area turn to vodka because they're bored and there's nothing else to do.

You say that in the zone you rediscovered the country in which you were born. Are you nostalgic for the USSR?

There are things that I miss a lot. It's tragic that we have lost our country. It's a shame that we destroyed everything without thinking ahead or creating an economic basis for what we wanted. A lot was wrong with the Soviet Union, but there was a phase, post-communism, when we thought that everything was bad. We had no plan.

We are in this situation because we've just gone on, without a plan, in a country that actually had everything. It had so many clever, educated people and so many resources. But we're poor because we haven't moved on from where we were when everything collapsed.

Interview: Maisie Hitchcock
Editor: Louisa Schaefer / Kate Bowen