DPP Home Profiles Gerd Ludwig: Living With Chernobyl

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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On April 26, 1986, this amusement park was being readied for the annual May Day celebrations when the Chernobyl reactor exploded less than three kilometers away.
The drilling and reinforcement are necessary because the current containment system at the reactor is crumbling. If the roof were to collapse, it would release enough radiation to match the original meltdown—the same catastrophe all over again.

"The core has melted down and is sinking into the ground," Ludwig explains. "There is one spot, the so-called elephant's foot, but I didn't go there. It's just a piece of melted concrete, and you get your lifetime dosage of radiation in 60 seconds, despite wearing protective gear. I felt that was a risk that I didn't want to take to just get a picture of a piece of melted concrete."

On his most recent trip—funded via donations through a Kickstarter campaign—Ludwig went into the reactor armed with a single Canon EOS 5D Mark II, two lenses and a handheld flash in order to travel light. He also wanted to shoot video to better tell the story of working inside the power plant. His assistants declined to accompany him, and the language barrier prevented him from recruiting assistance from the Ukrainian workers, so Ludwig improvised.

"I shot with a GoPro helmet camera," he says. "I put that on my helmet and let it run while I was shooting. The stills were more important, and the GoPro didn't work well in low light—and there's extremely low light in these situations—but it did very well in capturing sound, and now we have this 60-second video that gives the feeling of what it was like to be in there, moving fast in the dark, claustrophobic interior with the constant sound of the Geiger counters beeping. The still pictures are sharp and detailed because of my handheld flash, but the video expresses the eerie feeling of the place."


Oleg Shapiro, 54, and Dima Bogdanovich, 13, receive care at a thyroid hospital in Minsk. Dima's mother claims that Chernobyl's nuclear fallout is responsible for her son's cancer, but his doctors are more cautious. Belarusian officials are often instructed to downplay the severity of the radiation.
Being able to harness video is an amazing addition to a photographer's storytelling repertoire. It's just one of many changes in the new photojournalism, though. Ludwig's new position is not just photographer and videographer. He's also now a co-publisher (the app is produced with cooperation with Lightbox Press). It's a powerful reason to create your own iPad app—not only can you include new media, but you can reach a new audience that may not otherwise see your work, and you can publish what you want, when you want, how you want.

"I'm trying to embrace these new technologies and not continue just to do what I've always done," Ludwig says. "I didn't want to become this inflexible seasoned photographer. I want to learn from the younger generation and take on new media not simply for the sake of technology alone, but to combine it with my own vision, my way of thinking and my professional experience to produce something profound. I approached the Kickstarter campaign and the iPad app in the same way. The app isn't simply a PDF e-book. It's fairly comprehensive, including over 150 images in four main chapters, with individual sub-features, five videos, two interactive panoramic images, an expert essay and links to important resources, including a Chernobyl charity organization. I'm certainly not going to get rich from it; I was able to cut it down to $6.99 because the last trip was funded by Kickstarter.

"I think an app opens up possibilities I couldn't have done in a conventional book," he adds. "Conventional books are incredibly expensive to produce. It doesn't mean that I'm not going to publish a book at some point, but that would possibly be a more high-end book that would just help to fund further trips there."




 

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