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In this installment of Douglas Kirkland On Photography, Douglas Kirkland talks with his friend and colleague, Gerd Ludwig. A photojournalist best known for his work in National Geographic magazine, Gerd Ludwig has taken a special interest in Russia and the former Soviet Union—in particular, the people and stories surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
As the installment begins, Gerd is packing for this third major trip to Chernobyl. Gerd shares his techniques for choosing and packing gear for a photojournalism expedition.
Next, Douglas and Gerd sit down for a wide-ranging conversation. They discuss the changing business landscape of photography and Gerd’s approach to photojournalism. Gerd also describes how and why he works in Chernobyl and details how he financed his latest trip through the crowdfunding site Kickstarter.com.
After Gerd returns from Chernobyl, he and Douglas meet again to review some of the photographs and video that Gerd shot during his latest trip. They talk about Chernobyl today, about how video is impacting photojournalism, and about the future of Gerd’s "Long Shadow of Chernobyl" project.
Douglas > Well Gerd, welcome back. I am glad you are safely home. It seems like just yesterday we put you on the plane on your way to Chernobyl and you have had a lot of experience since that. So I would like you to share some of that with us. What's happened to you out there, what did you find and discover? Gerd > It's amazing how much has happened since we last met. Chernobyl of course is an incredibly complex subject. So when I got there, I found certain things to be very much the same as they used to be and real surprises.
What is still the same are the health consequences. The radiation doesn't go away. People are still affected by it. Even the younger generation is effected by it. A young girl that was born just outside of the zone, her mother had lived during the accident very close to the Chernobyl zone and the girl has spend most of her young live in the hospital. When she plays with the other children, she plays doctor and nurse and in a really emotional gesture, her mother says, "But we have to have your angel in here in the picture." This guy who lives back in the zone now since more than 20 years is suffering from loneliness as he admitted since his wife died about 5 years ago and he doesn't have much communication with his neighbors.
Douglas > You bring us really into the human devastation and that's what's the richness of your images. Gerd > Some of that is still the same, the people returning, the people living out their lives instead of dying of a broken heart in an anonymous suburb. In the beginning they were chased down by the militia who tried to get them out, but now they accept that they return and live out their lives on their own soil.
What is new is the new construction over the shelter, so there will be a new shelter, a new safe confinement built over the existing one, because the existing structure is unsound and leaky and could collapse at anytime. Douglas > Is that really preventing it from going further, reaching out further? What happens actually, what are we seeing here? Gerd > What you see here, there are huge 25 meter long metal pipes that are going to be hammered into the ground and they just spilled a base for a new safe confinement, which is eventually going to slide over the whole structure and in case the old structure and the radiation inside.
Douglas > What was the kind of money you said it cost to put this up? Gerd > $2.2 billion. Douglas > $2.2 billion? Gerd > $2.2 billion! Douglas > And you said the life expectancy of this is what? Gerd > About 80-100 years and then they have to find a new solution. It was meant to be finished already years ago, but it's been postponed over and over again. The work is going on the contaminated ground in front of the western wall which has been stabilized as we see in the back, but the workers are still wearing protective gear and facemask because of the hazardous contamination that still exists there.
I was able to return back inside the reactor where the work has now come to a stop. This is an image of the so called leaning staircase which was built afterwards to give access to the workers that were only allowed to work a single shift of 15 minutes per day. This is one of the highest contaminated areas there and I was able to access that area; however there is no work going on anymore.
Douglas > Very vulnerable for you I would think. Your time, you have 15 minutes, not more yourself. You are in danger yourself if you are not watching that. Gerd > I had a guide with me who was this time constantly monitoring the radiation and on a decimeter was able to see accumulative how much radiation I got during that day and how much would I be able to still stay in this specific area.
This was very highly contaminated area here where we could actually only stay for a few minutes, 2 to 3 minutes. This situation is very hard to shoot. You have low light, you have a one strobe on your camera, and I did not have an assistant. I would have wanted to go in there with two cameras, but that would have been too bulky because for the first time I wanted to try to show in a video what it feels like to be in there.
So ahead of time-- and you saw me packing for this, I did take this little camera, the GoPro camera. Douglas > How did you use this? Gerd > You can set it ahead of time, and because time is very valuable and limited, and I put it on my helmet, strapped it on to my helmet, and I headed as-- instead of a headlamp basically, I had this video camera.
Douglas > Your first job is to get great stills of course because you want stills. This is a supplement and this is something you probably would never have realized 5 years ago. This is the new Gerd Ludwig, this is new photojournalism. Gerd > Exactly! It's the new work of a photojournalist or a documentary photographer. What the camera really gave me is that feeling of darkness. Whereas the images show fairly clear the situation that I was in, the camera adds to the feeling and what you hear in the video is that sound of Geiger counter.
Douglas > I would like to hear that. Gerd > So here we have it. Douglas > Okay. (Metallic rattling noise) Gerd > Sawing of the bureaucratic barriers helped me to venture deeper into the reactor than any Western still photographer.
After dawning my protective gear, I followed a group of workers into the belly of the beast. They were assigned to drill holes in the concrete to stabilize the roof and additionally, there were gas mask and oxygen tanks. We had to move fast. The access was limited to a maximum of 15 minutes per day. We rushed through dimly lit tunnels strewing with wires, shredded metal, and other debris. While photographing I needed to dodge the spray of sparks from the drillers and highly contaminated concrete dust. And I knew I had only a few minutes to capture impacting images of an environment that few have ever seen and that I might never access again.
After little more than halfway through the allotted shift, our Geiger counters and decimeters began beeping errie concert reminding us that our time was up. Douglas > Amazing stuff, Gerd. Gerd > It gives you the feeling of being on the ground there, something that with that sound of the Geiger counter, the still picture really cannot do.
Douglas > What changes have you seen there? Gerd > One of the biggest changes is surprisingly tourism to the town of Pripyat. That the Ukrainian authorities have opened the zone to tourism. Now tourists can go in-- of course not to those areas that I had access to. They can go in and get a few minutes to shoot from outside the reactor. They are told stay on the pavement there, stay on the ground, don't go on the grass because on the grass the contamination is much-much higher. And they are rushed out after a few minutes and then they get to see classrooms and the schools and the kindergartens, the empty buildings.
It's a very surreal situation where these tourists coming in. This one guy brought his own gas mask, not because he wanted to protect himself or because he was afraid. He said just for kicks and to be photographed by his peers. Douglas > It seems strange to be making sort of doing something for kicks in the center of all this devastation, but look at this. This is hard to imagine. There is an amusement park in the background, isn't it? Gerd > This is a Polish tourist-- It is, the amusement park that never started, and now tourist are running around and photographing themselves.
A very strange situation because this metal here is really still very highly contaminated. Douglas > Is that lady in danger sitting there? Gerd > She can endanger herself for brief because if she picks up some particles there specifically because that areas has not been cleaned very well. Douglas > It doesn't sound like the ideal vacation spot. Gerd > No, it's not. Douglas > But people are curious. That's really where it comes down to. What do we have here? Gerd > This has become the standard motif for tourists.
They are trying to simplify the message. You find doll and you find gas masks, but this is an image that certainly looks and certainly has been arranged by a tourist to simplify the message. It is in this environment, but if you look carefully this was not there the way it is presented, and you find tourists are changing that environment, specifically in the city of Prypiat where they have access.
Out in the zone, areas that tourists don't get to see much, that's where the returnees live. This women lives there and now she even has chickens and pigs that they raise, but in a village of maybe 3000 people, 5, 10, 15 people live there now. In between them is total devastation.
Douglas > She just wants to live her life out as she has known it. Gerd > Yeah! What you have here is one of the so called liquidators. Eventually, the Soviet Union brought in 600,000-800,000 liquidators that helped with the cleanup. He now has only a few months to live and what is interesting is that he said "Even though I know that most likely my disease", he has a serious heart problem, "has been caused by the radiation, I would not do anything different if I had to do it again." "We were educated, we were brought up to serve our nation, and that's what I did and I wouldn't do it any different again." Douglas > So this is extraordinary, looking at these individuals, because it becomes a human reality. It's just not a major new story, but you look at this individual and the lady before and all these people, the children at the beginning, it's amazing story you are telling, Gerd.
Gerd > After all, it is a story about humans and human hubris and human irresponsibility. Another one of these ladies that returned back into the zone. She is 93 years old, she lives all by herself, and since she has hard time walking and getting around, she is not getting to see many people at all.
Her children come and visit every 6 months or so. Other than that. Douglas > So basically, she is forgotten. Gerd > Yeah. This is actually the only image that I am showing you that was taken 6 years ago. A school room and you see that the dignitaries portraits are still on the wall. When the accident happened, Pripyat was evacuated super fast. But things are changing even in the zone. A typical school room looks like this today, because meanwhile scavengers have come in and have taken out anything that is off some kind of use, specifically scrap metal, even a bench or frame here and there, and this is the look of the empty school rooms today.
Douglas > That's amazing. It suggests a desperation on the part of the people to have these acquisitions. And I assume they take them and try to reuse them and not acknowledge that they -- Gerd > Some of them are being reused, but some stuff is also sold on the markets nearby. Douglas > On what basis is it sold on, that it is survived the --? Gerd > No, no. Douglas > Just sold as "here is a chair." Gerd > No, yeah it's a chair and the people don't know where that chair came from.
So the radiation is spreading outside of the zone in many different ways. And this is a former sports complex and you see how the floors are rotting and everything in there from the balls that were left there, everything is gone and has been taken out. Douglas > How many times have you been to Chernobyl now yourself Gerd? Gerd > Well major trips were 3.
One in the early 90s, one in 2005 and one just recently, but these major trips all consisted of repeated entries into the zone, going in and going out. Douglas > You are a brave man, really. Gerd > Because specifically in the early years I was not allowed to stay longer than 2 weeks at a time. So I had to leave the zone for a few days and then I was able to reenter.
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