Writing on photography

A Poor Inheritance: Chernobyl and the Unseen Legacy of the Soviet Union

‘I took off all the clothes that I’d worn there and threw them down the trash chute. I gave my cap to my little son. He really wanted it. And he wore it all the time. Two years later they gave him a diagnosis: a tumour in his brain. You can write the rest of this yourself. I don’t want to talk anymore.’[1]

On April 26th 1986 a safety test of a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in northern Ukraine caused an unprecedented industrial disaster. A combination of human error and counter-intuitive reactor design caused a series of explosions which blew the plant apart and scattered radioactive debris across huge swathes of Europe. At that time the Soviet Union was still a profoundly secretive state. The relative political openness of Glasnost was years away, and the government response to the disaster was typified by silence and non-communication, deferral and abdication of responsibility. Yet despite this secrecy, from its very start the Chernobyl disaster attracted that most revealing and un-secretive of things; the camera. Photography proved vital in early attempts to make sense of this catastrophe, to visualise and understand it for decision makers who were often far from its epicentre.

These early photographs have since become a key part of the collective memory of the disaster. Aerial photographs of the exploded reactor building, like a burst cocoon, with its burning black contents scattered far and wide. Pictures of the conscripts and fire-fighters who were ‘flung like sand onto the reactor’[2] to quench the graphite fires and to clear debris so radioactive it caused robots to break down, and fogged the film of camera men. Latterly photographs of the Sarcophagus, the brutally functional concrete shelter built to entomb the reactor’s lethal remains for some of the twenty thousand years that that they are predicted to remain dangerous for. This protective structure has already itself begun to fall to pieces, and now remote cameras are used to determine the extent of this disintegration, probing interiors where people dare not tread, and where only radiotrophic fungi can survive.

Even with the subsequent stabilisation and isolation of the disaster site within a thirty mile exclusion zone, Chernobyl continues to attract cameras. The power plant’s satellite town of Pripyat in particular draws hundreds of visitors every year, often taking part in specially organised tours. Professional and amateur photographers go like some strange sect of nuclear millenarian, paying pilgrimage to an atomic-age Pompeii, a city preserved in time by an inexplicable catastrophic event. They record the abandoned corridors of apartment blocks, the gas mask strewn floors of classrooms, yellowed propaganda posters. They return with photographs that tell of an age less than thirty years passed, and yet already receding fast into a history as distantly unreachable as that of ancient Rome.

Regardless of the camera’s much heralded ability to record and reveal, these types of photographs tend to tell us relatively little about the disaster because the causes and consequences of Chernobyl are for the most part unseeable. Visible light is itself a form of radiation, one of many that fall across a wide spectrum, along with invisible infra-red light and the type of ionising radiation released by radioactive material. This ionising radiation, the thing that most essentially defines Chernobyl, cannot be seen by human eyes. As one survivor of the disaster poetically ruminated; ‘some people say it has no colour and no smell…if it’s colourless, then it’s like God.’[3]

Ed Thompson’s photographs offer an alternative vision of Chernobyl and its environs. Using infra-red film he has photographed the plants and foliage of the exclusion zone, which in the infra-red spectrum show up not in their normal shades of green, but in unreal hues of red and pink. This approach is however more than an aesthetic resetting of a familiar subject. Plants are susceptible to radiation damage like any organism, and some species are particularly prone to absorbing it. This leads to mutations, growth defects, leaf damage, or even death, as in the case of the ‘Red Forest’, a stretch of dangerously irradiated pine forest from which these photographs take their name. Amongst its myriad scientific uses infra-red film can be employed to detect plant health by revealing the condition of foliage, and so Thompson’s photographs potentially offer clues for those able to read them as to the extent of the environmental contamination at each location.

These photographs also reveal something else though, something still more intangible. The red tones of Thompson’s pictures are a fitting image metaphor for a landscape hopelessly polluted with lethal radiation, but they also offer an oblique allusion to the wider environmental legacy of the Soviet era. The aftermath of practices and policies which continue to affect not just the hundreds of thousands of people harmed by Chernobyl, but perhaps hundreds of millions of people scattered across the Soviet Union’s former territories.

From the Caesium laced landscape of Chernobyl to the missile test ranges of Kamchatka. From the anthrax and smallpox dumps of Rebirth Island to the radioactive lighthouses of the Arctic coast. For a society which focused on the imminent creation of a new society and a new world, the Soviet Union bestowed on its children a poor inheritance. A bequeath of environmental mismanagement, ineptitude and disregard, which it’s former citizens and their descendants will suffer from for centuries, or in some cases even millennia, to come.

Photographs from Thompson’s Unseen Project are on show at Royal Engineers Museum, Gillingham untill 1st March 2015.

[1] Soldier’s Chorus, Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl translated by Keith Gessen (2005) pg.73
[2] Soldier’s Chorus, Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl translated by Keith Gessen (2005) pg.76
[3] Monologue about what Radiation Looks like, Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl translated by Keith Gessen (2005) pg.51

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

Writing on photography