Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Gerd Ludwig: Living With Chernobyl
Gerd Ludwig has studied this Russian nuclear meltdown for 25 years, photographing the place and the people whose lives it has affected
|This Article Features Photo Zoom|
I'm scrolling through a powerful collection of photos on my iPad. The pictures depict a strange place, clearly abandoned in an instant. Some scenes are familiar, even archetypal: a tree growing inside a schoolroom, an orphanage populated only by gas masks and abandoned teddy bears, workers donning science-fiction-style hazmat gear. The pictures are from Chernobyl, the photographer is Gerd Ludwig, and the iPad app is integral to his story.
Workers wearing respirators and plastic suits for protection are allowed only one 15-minute stay in this space per day.
"Russia is a very personal history of mine," Ludwig explains. For generations, his forefathers lived in Germany, but when borders were redrawn after World War I, his parents suddenly found themselves in Czechoslovakia. When Hitler annexed that country in 1938, Ludwig's father was pressed into the German army—forced to switch sides and become part of the force that invaded Russia.
"After Germany lost the war," Ludwig says, "the Germans in Sudetenland were kicked out of their property and out of their homes, and my parents' families were among them. As a refugee, I grew up incredibly poor in a tiny little room that served as living room, bedroom and kitchen, all in one. At night, tucked away between my parents' bodies, I would listen to my father's sad and soothing voice as he conjured images of people fighting their way through snowstorms, hiding in barns. I perceived these stories as bedtime stories. But they were my father's experiences fighting his way through Russia. Telling these stories was his way of trying to cope and shed himself of the terrible memories of war.
This amusement park is a symbol of the abandonment of the area.
Looking critically at then-Soviet policies, one cannot ignore the catastrophe at Chernobyl. Ludwig was nowhere near the reactor when it melted down on April 26, 1986. He was in Denver working on the A Day in the Life of America project. When news reports started appearing three days later, Ludwig was on a remote location with no access to television or phone. It was a month before he heard from friends in Germany who had evacuated their pregnant wives and children. This brought the event to the fore for Ludwig, yet it was still six years before he would set foot inside the exclusion zone.
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