Gerd Ludwig: Living With Chernobyl

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.

Ludwig has been photographing inside Chernobyl’s 30-kilometer exclusion zone since 1992, and his experience is representative of the new way photojournalism works. He used a Kickstarter campaign to finance a recent trip before creating an iPad app to incorporate photos, videos, audio and text into a more complete, more visceral, more authentic way to tell the story. As I swipe the screen to transition from a video inside the reactor to portraits of the disaster’s victims, my elevated heart rate is evidence that it works.

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.

"So I grew up with images of Russia," Ludwig continues, "without even understanding the meaning of a country or what the word ‘war’ really meant. But images of a land far, far away remained deeply ingrained in my mind. When I grew older, I realized the terrible truth behind my father’s stories and the crimes that my parents’ generation had committed by invading countries all over Europe. Like many of my generation, I felt incredibly guilty, and I started to idolize everything that my parents’ generation had tried to destroy—from the Jewish faith to the Soviet Union. In my early 30s, when I got the chance to shoot my first assignment in the Soviet Union for German Geo, I didn’t allow myself to take any critical pictures. That was part of that guilt. Only when Gorbachev parted the veil did I look at the Soviet Union with a more critical view, and my pictures started to incorporate the political and economic realities of a country that had been under totalitarian rule for seven decades. Much of my work in the former Soviet Union is still, even at my age, dealing with my own history."

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.

Workers building the new $2.2 billion Safe Confinement.

"In 1991, I had a first touch with radiation because I was shooting for National Geographic in Kazakhstan," Ludwig says, "and I went to ground zero of the first Soviet nuclear explosion on a nuclear testing site. From that point on, I became interested in Chernobyl. A couple of years later, on assignment for National Geographic on pollution in the former Soviet Union, I traveled across many of the republics, including a trip to Chernobyl in the Ukraine."

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.

"The immediate area around the reactor is fenced off by a concrete wall topped with barbed wire, and a complex system is in place to allow entry to the facility," Ludwig says. "This area can only be accessed with special permits and requires you to strip down completely to your underwear and leave your clothing—and your passport—behind with officials. After donning lightweight protective gear, boots with disposable boot covers and state-of-the-art Geiger counters and dosimeters, a company engineer must accompany you the entire way. As you get deeper inside, a system of staggered permissions and security checkpoints allows additional access. Entry into the inner sanctum requires added protective gear, such as plastic gloves, face masks, additional boot covers and 3mm- to 4mm-thick plastic overalls."

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 hav
e 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."

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."

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."

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!"

You can see more of Gerd Ludwig’s Chernobyl photography and find out about the Chernobyl app at You can buy Ludwig’s Chernobyl app at the Apple iTunes Store.

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