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
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Workers building the new $2.2 billion Safe Confinement.
Ludwig has since made several return trips, photographing not only inside the exclusion zone, the town of Pripyat and the highly radioactive facility itself, but to neighboring states as well. Belarus, in particular, was devastated by radiation that still affects residents today.
"The exclusion zone was originally a circle of 30 kilometers drawn around the reactor," Ludwig explains, "but when they started to fence it in, they looked more at where the cloud drifted. Later studies have shown that many areas outside of the exclusion zone had a much higher contamination than areas inside. Where it rained it washed the radiation out of the air onto the ground, and those areas had a much higher contamination if they had rainfall shortly after the accident."
Ludwig also photographed immediately around and inside the damaged power plant itself. More than 800,000 workers have participated in the cleanup over the years. Today, the construction of a new $2.2 billion Safe Confinement to replace the current leaky and structurally unsound sarcophagus is underway.
On the day of the disaster, children oblivious to the nuclear accident played in this kindergarten in Pripyat, the reactor's company town.
Ludwig hasn't experienced any ill effects from photographing at Chernobyl, and he doesn't appear to be overly concerned about potential consequences to his health. That's partly because he's cautious when working near the reactor and partly because he feels so compelled to tell this important story.
"As photographers," he says, "my colleagues risk their lives all the time. Some fly a paraglider over the desert; others do war photography and put themselves into danger. We always take risks. In the outer areas of Chernobyl, you have your Geiger counter and your dosimeter, you monitor your radiation, and you know people have been working there on a regular basis. It gets really eerie and strange once you enter the highly contaminated and constricted areas. Chernobyl is very eerie, especially in the inner sanctum of the beast.
"When I first ventured inside in 2005," Ludwig says, "I followed a group of workers assigned to drill holes in the concrete to erect huge metal pillars in order to stabilize the roof. The workers wore gas masks to protect from the contaminated dust. I didn't because I couldn't shoot wearing a gas mask. The radiation levels in this area are so high that, despite wearing protective gear, access was limited to only one shift of 15 minutes each day."
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