National Geographic photographer Gerd Ludwig is determined the world’s worst nuclear accident should not be forgotten. And is returning to Chernobyl 25 years on to photograph the site and people who live and work there.
In 1986 the operators in the Chernobyl nuclear plant botched a safety test resulting in an explosion causing radioactive fallout over tens of thousands of square miles. Thousands of people have subsequently died of cancer related to the accident.
Ludwig said: “When I first went to Chernobyl on assignment I could not believe the tragedy that I saw. There is a difference between reading about it and experiencing it yourself.”
More than a quarter of a million people moved permanently from their homes. But now hundreds of elderly people have returning to the exclusion zone around the power plant preferring to die in their old homes.
Ludwig will be risking his own health by spending time in the exclusion zone.
He said: “Danger is always there but as a photographer we give a voice to otherwise voiceless victims. The handicapped people or people who have lost a leg they are the real heroes. They allow us to show their suffering despite knowing this is not going to change their lives but in the hope that a tragedy like this will not happen again.”
Children born in the region are said to have a higher rate of birth defects and retardation because of Chernobyl, a belief supported by many, but not all in the scientific community.
Ludwig’s work focuses on changes in the former Soviet Union and surrounding states and environmental issues.
He said: “In Chernobyl the two subjects come together. As someone born in Germany I feel closer to Chernobyl than an American would.”
Ludwig first visited the exclusion zone in 1993 and he returned five years ago.
He took pictures deep in the reactor where the workmen are only allowed to work a 15 minute shift each day because of the risk to their health.
He said: “I was deeper in there than any western stills photographer. The danger for me was that I couldn’t wear a gas mask because it is too limiting, you can’t see down the view finder, so I had to settle for a face mask.”
This time he wants to explore even deeper in the reactor.
Photographer Gerd Ludwig puts on protective clothing before entering the highly-contaminated Reactor #4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant where 25 years ago, operators botched a routine safety test, resulting in the world’s worst nuclear disaster to date.
Ludwig is no supporter of nuclear energy and is concerned by the German government extending the life of its nuclear plants.
He said: “I try not to put that in the forefront. But to say, you make your own judgement when you see the possible outcome of nuclear energy.
“I want people to remember that this can happen any day.”
Wind blows through the desolate town of Pripyat. On April 26, 1986, this amusement park was being readied for the annual May Day celebrations when the Chernobyl nuclear accident occurred.
Disillusioned with traditional media outlets turning to celebrity reporting and sensationalism Ludwig is using crowd funding website Kickstarter to fund some of the trip. In total he needs to raise US$50,000.
He said: “This shows when people vote with their pocket books they actually vote for content. It is very encouraging.”
If he gets the funding in place he plans to leave his home in Los Angels in the middle of March to ensure he can have the photos ready by the anniversary of the disaster on April 26.
Workers must wear plastic suits and respirators for protection inside Reactor #4, where radiation levels remain so high shifts are limited to only 15 minutes per day.
The photographs will be on display in May 2011 at the Horizonte Photo Festival in Zingst, Germany and the chairman of the German Green Party Jürgen Trittin has agreed to be the patron of the exhibition. The exhibition will be called The Long Shadow of Chernobyl.