To commemorate the 19th anniversary of the nuclear disaster, shift workers of Chernobyl gather at 12:23 a.m. local time for a candlelight vigil around the Monument to the Firemen.
Ludwig's Chernobyl work is in no way complete. He'll continue telling the story—in words, in pictures and in video—as long as he can, though he hesitates to call it his life's work.
"While Chernobyl is a continuing subject," Ludwig says, "it's not the one focus in my life. There are certain threads to my work. Chernobyl is one, but also the general focus on ecology. In my photographic life, my work in the former Soviet Union and its political and socioeconomic transition is even more important. But I will return to Chernobyl. It remains the world's worst nuclear accident to date. It will always be an event that's determined by the name of its location. Like Auschwitz, Ground Zero or Hiroshima, Chernobyl stands for the horrors of human failure."
Adds Ludwig, "Chernobyl was the crucial incident that opened peoples' eyes in the Soviet Union to how their system put secrecy over the well-being of the citizens. Once that became clear to the people, they started doubting their leaders and their system more and more. Many historians point to Chernobyl as playing a major role in the downfall of the Soviet system."
You can see more of Gerd Ludwig's Chernobyl photography and find out about the Chernobyl app at gerdludwig.com. You can buy Ludwig's Chernobyl app at the Apple iTunes Store.
The Politics Of Photographing The Effects Of Chernobyl
In the Gomel region of Belarus, Ludwig has photographed children's hospitals and orphanages. "One has to be very careful," he says. "The health consequences of the disaster can only be understood statistically. You can never track a single birth defect or disease to one specific and definite cause such as contamination—except, of course, for those people who actually died of radiation sickness following the accident. What I make clear is that I photographed only in orphanages that receive aid from Chernobyl funds."
To gain access is often tricky. At one point, Ludwig applied for a permit to photograph in an orphanage in Belarus. On the morning of his arrival, he was greeted by two representatives of the administration.
"I said openly that I was looking at this orphanage for possible victims of the Chernobyl accident," he explains. "They said, 'You won't find anyone here related to Chernobyl. Nothing relates to Chernobyl.' Since Belarus has huge areas of fallow land, and the government wants to recultivate the contaminated land, officials want to downplay the effects of Chernobyl. So I said, 'If you give me in writing that none of these children here are in any way related to the Chernobyl accident, then I will go back to National Geographic, and we'll report that there are no victims of Chernobyl in this orphanage. And, of course, then, you also don't need anymore international aid for this orphanage related to Chernobyl.' You should have seen how fast they changed their mind!"