The Generations of Chernobyl

I’m pretty confident that most people know something about Chernobyl.

Any tragedy with so much impact on the human race will leave a significant kind of a mark on history. To me, Chernobyl is even more embedded in my memory. I remember 1986 rather vividly; I was a pretty typical teenager working in the restaurant industry, saving money for college and travel. Gasoline was less than a dollar a gallon to fill my old Volkswagen Beetle, Madonna was my favorite singer and could always be heard on my cassette player. Oprah made her national debut that year, and Phantom Of The Opera opened in London’s West End. The public charity event “Hands Across America” was held during May of 1986. I had already developed an interest for news, journalism, and travel, so the horrific story that unfolded that spring from a faraway place has always seemed to have been an indispensable part of my history.

Several major world events happened that year, the kind where you remember exactly where you were and how you felt at the moment they took place. For me, there were three such events. The outbreak of Mad Cow Disease in England, The Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy and the terrible explosion of the number four reactor at the Chernobyl Power Plant in Ukraine, at the time still part of the Soviet Union. I can clearly remember Peter Jennings reporting that little news was known and still coming in about the nuclear accident on ABC’s World News Tonight. After seeing that initial report, I remember being glued to the T.V. for days waiting for the slow trickle of information being released. The Soviets weren’t known for releasing more information than necessary on these kinds of events but may have been relatively quick to respond to this because evidence of nuclear radiation had already reached beyond the Soviet borders into Scandinavia and Central Europe. 

At the time, Chernobyl was somewhat of a showcase facility with an excellent safety record. Near the capital city of Kiev with nearly 3 million inhabitants, and about 1000 miles from Scandinavia. Whatever happened there had lead to a radioactive cloud headed north over Poland, to Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. It would turn out to be the most severe accident to ever take place in the short history of civil nuclear power. Little news was being released initially from Chernobyl, even to the leaders in Moscow. In an interview years later, Gorbachev himself said he was first alerted of the severity of the accident from Sweden. The radioactive fallout would eventually be many times greater than the combined power of the two bombs dropped on Japan in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

My intrigue with the accident in Chernobyl has stayed with me over the years. In 1997, while on a photojournalism internship in Budapest, Hungary, I began to make plans to go to Ukraine to document how life was at that time in the area. Due to time constants, I never made it. The newsreels and still images I’d seen from the accident were somehow strategically placed in the back of my mind, categorized there for some kind of future use. I wasn’t sure when or how it would all come in handy, but I had a connection to the story, and if nothing else, I wanted to remember it all.

Years later in 2018, I received an email from Maxx Kochar, the program manager from Photographers Without Borders. He had a special request just for me, to see if I was interested in going to Ukraine to cover the story of the NGO Clean Futures Fund who helps the local communities in and around Chernobyl who were affected by the accident in 1986. It took me about two seconds to hit the “reply all” button on my Gmail account with the simple word “YES”! I was on my way, representing PWB to cover all of the heroic things CFF are working on at Chernobyl, in Pripyat (the city built for the worker of the power plant), in Slavutych (a similar city built for the workers of the plant after the accident), local healthcare for those workers and the liquidators and their families, local orphanages, rehabilitation centers, and their “Dogs of Chernobyl” project.

Once the date was set for my arrival, October 1st, 2018, I began brushing up on my knowledge of the accident and the progress made over the years, but I tried to limited myself to just the basics. I intentionally stayed away from looking for a lot of recent photographs and video clips, as I wanted to see for myself and to experience my honest emotions once I got there, without any expectations. How would being in a place like that feel? What could I learn there? Would the images I’ve seen online represent the real Chernobyl? Luckily, for me and the project as a whole, Jeff Garriock, a Canadian filmmaker was also assigned to the project to make a documentary film about Chernobyl and the CFF story. This would be my fourth project for Photographers Without Borders, but my first one traveling with another storyteller. I was excited to have someone to discuss ideas and brainstorm with, and to learn from. Little did I know before the trip, just how useful working with Jeff on this would be. Being present with him during his interviews for the film was an invaluable asset to me to help learn the real story behind my own images. He always asked smart, informative questions, without which, I would be just taking photographs of interesting things, and then left on my own to get the information for my narrative.

I cannot accurately begin telling this story without introducing the co-founder and our host for the fourteen-day undertaking in Ukraine, Lucas Hixson. From the moment I met him at the airport, on our three-hour drive to Slavutych, and throughout our time together, he never ceased to amaze me. He had more energy than anyone I’d ever met. With about three hours or less of sleep a night, he was always the first one awake, bouncing around with fresh ideas, fearlessly leading us on our daily adventures, drinking endless cups of “Cafe Americanos,” and he was always the last one to bed at night. On one evening, after a long day of work on our project, I was ready to retire by about 9pm. I said goodnight, assuming everyone else was as exhausted as I was and would be right behind me. The next morning, at an early breakfast, I asked everyone how they slept. Lucas explained that after I went off to bed, he and a friend went to a nearby vineyard and picked grapes until after 1am, before going to sleep. I have countless stories about him like that, as he seemed to thrive on a small amount of rest, and still coming up with new ways of doing things with a laser focus. Not only was Lucas one of the most energetic and smartest (his background is in nuclear science) people I’d met, but also one of the funniest. He could be discussing the how uranium atoms split releasing energy and the difference between alpha, beta, and gamma radiation one minute, and quoting word for word classic Saturday Night Live skits the next. I can honestly say he was one of the most interesting people I’d ever met in my life, and I’m a better person for having worked so closely with him on this project.

The Clean Futures Fund (CFF) is a U.S. 501(c)(3) non-profit organization established to raise awareness and provide international support for communities affected by industrial accidents and long-term remedial activities. CFF identifies and finances humanitarian aid projects and the exchange of information and experiences from affected communities to support long-term remedial activities around the world. The Fund is dedicated to strengthening international relations and advancing the United States as a cornerstone of humanitarian aid and a contributing member of the global community. They envision a world where the workers and families of people who live in affected areas are provided with adequate education, healthcare, and safe work environments. CFF was founded in 2016 by Erik Kambarian and Lucas Hixson. Erik and Lucas traveled to Ukraine in 2013, 2015, and 2016 as official visitors of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant with a group of professionals with backgrounds in nuclear energy and emergency response. During their time in “the Zone,” Erik and Lucas developed strong relationships and friendships with Chernobyl workers that still have decades of remediation work ahead of them. Each subsequent visit opened their eyes to the myriad challenges faced on a daily basis, the working conditions in and around the area, and the support services necessary to take care of a generational workforce and their families. “We realized that most if not all of these issues aren’t just limited to the Chernobyl.” says Lucas, “Rather these are systemic issues faced when responding to severe industrial accidents or managing long-term cleanup programs. There are always going to be problems managing the budget, there will be sacrifices made, but there will also always be an opportunity for the international community to step in and help.”

We stayed very busy during our entire assignment. In one way, it always seemed like we had just arrived and in others, it felt like a lifetime. Our hosts Lucas and Rita (who Lucas describes as the “manager of everything”) from CFF could not have been any more helpful, professional, and above all, inspiring. Our primary goal on the project was to try and tie the Chernobyl Power Plant and Pripyat, the city evacuated and abandoned after the nuclear accident in 1986, together with the current life in Slavutych; since both cities were built for and around the workers of Chernobyl. We had our plan. 

Before arriving I thought that we would spend most of our time in Slavutych, but as it turned out, we visited Chernobyl and/or Pripyat almost every day. Getting to the plant was a smooth 45-minute train ride from our home base in Slavutych. There was a 7:20am, 7:40am, or the 10:00 “drunk train” which all left precisely on time every morning. Workers would spend every possible second on the train platform drinking coffee, shaking hands, chatting, and smoking one last cigarette before boarding the train at the very last moment. An interesting fact about the train ride is that for most of the time you are actually passing through the country of Belarus. The train never stops in Belarus, although it was important to carry our passports with us just in case. Being there in October was a perfect time to visit, as the changing colors of the trees and foliage was a beautiful sight, both on the train ride and in the surrounding villages. I was forever entertained by watching the plant workers on the train; some sleepily stared out the window the entire trip, some tried to rest as their heads bobbed back and forth, while others played cards with the seriousness of a professional poker tournament. I’ll never forget our first day traveling on the train, and the moment that the power plant came into my line of sight, between the slight almost mystical fog that morning and the abundance of trees, I could only see the plant for a quick split second every now and then, but there it was; the unmistakable sight of the rustic old parts of Chernobyl mixed with The New Safe Confinement structure that covers the site of reactor 4 called “The Arch”. I’d seen the photos, watched some of the old documentaries, and heard the stories, but nothing quite prepared me for being there in person. There it was, the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident, and I was really there.

When we arrived in Chernobyl that first day, we were inside the exclusion zone. Established by the USSR military soon after the 1986 disaster, the exclusion zone initially existed as an area of 30 km (19 mi) radius from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant designated for evacuation and placed under military control. Its borders have since been altered to cover a larger area of Ukraine. Its purpose is to restrict access to hazardous areas, reduce the spread of radiological contamination, and conduct radiological and ecological monitoring activities. Today, the Exclusion Zone is one of the most radioactively contaminated areas in the world and draws significant scientific interest for the high levels of radiation exposure in the environment. It was fascinating to be there and to see the daily life as workers got off the train, passed through a series of checkpoints, jumped on buses and went off to work. Nearly 4,000 people still work at the plant today and receive good wages for the most part. Although we were in the zone, we didn’t actually enter the plant. First, we were off to visit Pripyat.

Pripyat is a ghost town today, named after the nearby Pripyat River. It was founded in 1970 and built to serve the people of the power plant which is just 3 km away. It was officially proclaimed a city in 1979, and had grown to a population of nearly 50,000 inhabitants by the time it was evacuated on April 27th and 28th 1986, the days after the accident. A city looking to the future, now locked in the past. It had many schools, a large hospital complex, stores, gyms, huge parks, cinemas, factories, a vast cultural center, pool, amusement park, and other landmarks of a thriving community. At the time, Pripyat was one of the most beautiful, modern cities in the Soviet Union. Over three decades later, this town is now a freeze-frame of 1986. Communist propaganda still hangs on walls, personal belongings litter the streets and abandoned buildings. The hammer and sickle decorate many things as if awaiting May Day celebrations that never took place. Toys, books and school supplies are seen about a schoolhouse where they were last played with and left behind by children who are now fully grown, if alive. I was shocked by each place I visited because I didn’t know what to anticipate around any corner. You may expect that these places and my photos of them might invoke a sense of despair or sadness, but in reality, I saw them (and hope you will as well) as stunning and peaceful. Yes, some of the things I saw in Pripyat were eerie or unusual, but never scary or alarming. It was actually lovely to see the way that nature was just taking back everything in a healthy way. I tried to remain cautious by being mindful that nothing was really “safe” in the exclusion zone, like giant holes in the floor, nails poking out of random beams, the broken glass everywhere, and radioactive dust that covered almost everything. It was liberating in a way to freely explore this abandoned and decaying city. The only sadness I felt was when I wondered how long the town might be around for, because it’s own way, Pripyat is beautiful.

One of the current projects the CFF is working on is called “The Dogs of Chernobyl,” for over 250 stray dogs that roam the grounds. These dogs can be found in nearly every area of the Chernobyl site, including controlled, indoor spaces. The workers have helped the dogs in a way, by saving scraps of their own meals to feed them. The dogs are driven out of the woods to the power plant by packs of wolves and a lack of food to support themselves in the Exclusion Zone. During the evacuation in 1986, the evacuees were not allowed to bring anything that they could not carry, and sadly their pets were abandoned. These former pets lived in the exclusion zone, migrated to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, where their descendants remain to this day. CFF developed a 3-year program with their partners to manage the stray dog population in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Clean Futures Fund raised funds to bring veterinarians to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant to administer rabies shots and spay and neuter the animals, and have now successfully adopted out 35 dogs from Chernobyl to new homes, many of which now live with their new families in The United States.

On one of the following days, we had the privilege of going with a family back to the father Ivan’s childhood house in the small village of Kopachi, outside of Chernobyl, followed by visiting Ivan and his wife Olena’s separate apartments in Pripyat that they lived in when they were dating before the accident. Their son, Anton, works at the power plant and is a close friend of Lucas and CFF. Anton wasn’t able to accompany us visiting his father’s house, but met up with us before we went to his parent’s apartments. This was the first time any of them had been back to these places in over 30 years, and even more special was that they were able to do it together with us, as a family.

We drove to the closest location Ivan could think of or remember on our way to the house he grew up in. None of us, especially him and his wife Olena knew what to look for, as most roads were now covered with waist-high and even sometimes neck-high bushes, trees and weeds. There were no street signs, or landmarks left to direct us. At one point after wading through the unknown territory, we thought of giving up and doing our interview and photos with him in a uniquely beautiful overgrown barn, which would have been satisfactory. But, Ivan wanted to proceed on as much as we did, and we continued on through the unfamiliar area. Along the way, stopping for an occasional cigarette, Ivan told us some stories about being a kid, swimming with the other children in a now dried up stream along the way, but he was most excited for us to hear about a large oak tree in his front yard that he played under and climbed as a child. It seemed as though this was one of his fondest memories and most-likely the thing that gave him the strength to continue on with us that afternoon.

After hours of trekking through the region, we could tell by the look on Ivan’s face, that he finally remembered his way home. He helped build his house that he grew up in with his mother and grandmother. Since he was living in his own apartment by the time of the evacuation, he wouldn’t know exactly what his family had left behind here when they were evacuated separately. Jeff, Lucas, Rita and I had fallen a few steps behind Ivan and Olena, but when we saw them begin to speed up, we had to dash to catch up just in time to see Ivan run up and hug as much as he could of the large oak tree that still stood tall and mighty in the front yard. As he held on tight, he looked up with pride with a huge smile and a tear in his eye. I’ll never forget the impression I had that afternoon of witnessing this purest of joy.

What happened next could not have been scripted better by the best screenwriter in Hollywood. As we walked into the house, we passed a front porch and kitchen still decorated and filled with personal artifacts, but Ivan went straight to his old bedroom which was lite only by a shaft of golden light streaming through the window. On a table next to the window were piles of his books, papers, and photos covered in dust. On the corner of the table sat a perfectly preserved black and white picture of himself as a child, which seemed to be there waiting all of these years for us to be there together to witness the reunion. Olena was close behind and without hesitation began to wipe the years of debris off of it with tears in her eyes. For the first time as adults, they were returning to retrieve important parts of their past. They’d never had that luxury like the rest of us do by stopping by our parent’s house on holidays to hunt for our old treasures.

After photographing them at the house, we were off to Pripyat to meet up with their son Anton to visit his parent’s apartments that they lived in as young adults and when they were dating. First, we went to Ivan’s apartment. Here in Pripyat, it was a little easier to find our way. Although some streets were still noticeable, nature was slowly taking back most things. Trees were growing up through the middle of walkways, and most places were covered by weeds. Once we found Ivan’s building, we followed him up the dilapidated stairway and into his apartment. Without skipping a beat, he calmly and naturally went into every room to close the windows, as if to protect the place from the upcoming winter storms. We spent 45 minutes or so listening to Ivan tell us about living there, his neighbors, and how it felt to be back after all of this time. I enjoyed photographing him and his son together here, in what otherwise was a stark, empty place.

Next, we were off to find Olena’s apartment, which took a little more time to notice. In true Soviet fashion, many of the buildings looked the same. As we came to the outside entry of her building, she pointed out that the chair sitting outside the front was hers, and that some looter must have tried to take it way over the years. Olena’s apartment was a little less decayed than Ivans, with some walls still painted in a lively bright blue color, and rooms where the wallpaper still struggled to hang on. She cried as she slowly walked every inch of her flat. They told us stories about where they sat drinking coffee together as young adults and how they were separated for nearly six months after the evacuation before being reunited. I tried to recreate some of the similar photos with Anton and his mom in the way I did with his dad earlier in the day. It was a unique, special day for me to have the privilege to witness these events, and something I will never forget.

On an afternoon visit to the Chernobyl City, a nearby town that the plant was named after, we visited many haunting memorials. The most striking was The Wormwood Star Memorial complex. The central section is a dirt road, flanked by signs naming the nearly 200 villages evacuated because of radiation fallout; one side of the sign is white representing life in the village before the accident, and the other side is black with a red line crossing through the name of the village symbolizing the emptiness afterward. From the west, the “Trumpeting Angel” monument stands tall and proud, with a few more monuments surround the site, among them a famous sculpture “Tamer of a Bull,” One of the sculptures in the park is dedicated to the original twin-cities of the Exclusion Zone – Hiroshima and Fukushima. In the middle of the complex is the postal area, a composition of fittings, empty mailboxes, where you can throw a letter to the already non-existent addresses of the liquidated settlements. The last statue still standing in Ukraine of Vladimir Lennon is also in Chernobyl City. The streets are nearly empty, but there are still a few people who live here. Workers inside this part of the zone follow a strict routine, 15 days in the city, then 15 days out of the zone. Everyone is tested for radiation as they leave.

The days seemed to be flying by, most of them with just that quick morning glimpse of the power plant through the trees from the train. Finally, the day came to visit inside the structure that had loomed over the horizon our entire trip. Reactor 4 was to be shut down for routine maintenance on April 25th, 1986. It was decided to test of the capability of the equipment to provide enough power to operate the reactor core cooling system and equipment during the transition between a loss of main station electrical power supply and the startup of the emergency power supply provided by diesel engines. Unfortunately, this test was carried out without a proper exchange of information and coordination between the personal in charge of the test and the personnel in charge of the operation of the nuclear reactor. This lack of awareness, resulting from an insufficient level of safety within the plant staff, led the operators to take a number of actions which deviated from established procedures and led to the dangerous situation. The combination of these factors provoked a sudden and uncontrollable surge which resulted in explosions and almost total destruction of the reactor. The consequences of this event were further worsened by the graphite moderator and other material fires that broke out in the building and contributed to a widespread and prolonged release of radioactive materials to the environment.

There were many levels of security we had to pass through getting access into the power plant, followed by carefully changing our clothes (in a series of different rooms) into a double-layered protective uniform, special boots with plastic covers for them, gloves, both a cloth covering and hard hats for head, and a breathing mask. We were being given extremely rare access into parts of the plant that very few people actually get to experience. I assumed we were taking the best possible protection available. That day Jeff, Lucas, Rita, and I were guided by Stanislav Shekstello, aka “Stavi,” a close friend to Lucas. Actually, Clean Futures Fund was conceived by a conversation Lucas had with Stavi on the train one day while discussing the need of a co-worker of his from the plant for a thyroid operation (we met Tatiana a few days later in Slavutych). Stavi was a short man in stature but filled with a tremendous amount of pride, knowledge, and welcomeness, and the perfect piece of the puzzle of Chernobyl for us that day.

Entering into the older parts of the plant was like stepping back in time, into what was the beautiful modern crown-jewel of Soviet nuclear power. Joining the four reactors, the main thoroughfare is hundreds of meters long known as the “Golden Corridor.” Endless slabs of golden aluminum walls. Walking through there in our protective gear and entering into the control rooms, was something I will never forget. Being there with my camera gear and having the opportunity to document the place that had been stored somewhere in the back of my mind all these years was truly surrealistic. Later at dinner, Jeff asked me if I’d ever experienced anything like it before, and the only thing I could compare it to was being in New York City as a photographer on September 11, 2001. Those were the two most consequential days of my life, as a photographer and as a human.

First, we entered control room 3, and for the most part, it still has all of the control panels, monitors, even telephones in tack. In fact, the three remaining reactor units were vital to Ukraine’s electricity needs and continued to operate for some years. Unit 2 shut down in 1991, unit 1 in 1996 and unit 3 in 2000. This room seemed like what you would expect a nuclear control  room from the 1970s on a movie set to look like. Then it was time to continue down to control room 4, which was surprisingly close. There were more levels of security that we need to pass through, making sure we had the correct paperwork and credentials on our trusty “progama.” We also need to continually step back and forth on wet and dry towels provided on the floor when entering and leaving these parts of the plant to reduce the chance of spreading any contamination.

Entering control 4, I was overcome with a feeling of complete astonishment. It seemed unbelievable that I was there. Back in control room 3, Lucas and Stavi were able to explain the design, the panels, and how all of the different controls functioned. But, in control 4, we were all mostly silent. Jeff, Rita and I respectfully documenting the emptiness of the room, Stavi standing curiously still in the middle, and Lucas measured the room with his Geiger counter (the readings were significantly higher in there). I imagine that you would have the same feeling in there, whether it was your first time or your hundredth. Haunting.

As we were about to walk out of control room 4, Lucas said quietly:

“I just want you to experience this. Like, no cameras, just feel this. Because it’s easy to get caught up in taking the photos, but I want you to feel this. I want you to imagine the explosion, the shaking, the lights, the ceiling falling. I want you to imagine people running from station to station. I want you to imagine the shift supervisor, standing right behind where Jeff is standing. I want you to imagine they don’t know what to do. I want you to imagine they don’t exactly know what’s going on. So they go to their training. They do what they think they’re supposed to do. You’ve got guys running the turbines, you’ve got guys running the control assemblies. There would’ve been that mechanical background, the ambient noise. There would’ve been rumblings, there would’ve been shaking. And there would’ve been confusion. So just for a second, I just want you to feel that. ‘Cause otherwise this is just another room.”

We continued on to reactor 3 hall, which is right next two and a mirror image of reactor 4. We were greeted by a “Caution Radiation Area” sign as we enter the enormous room. Most everything here is still intact since it was officially shut down in 2000. No words can accurately describe how it feels to stand on a nuclear reactor core. We also visited the unfinished water cooling towers that were being built at the time of the accident. They were enormous. One of my favorite images that I shot was with a wide-angle lens showing the entire inside of the tower, a circular shadow beaming in from the top, a beautiful blue sky with white puffy clouds, with a graffiti artist’s work of the face of a first responder in the foreground.

On the next day, as if leaving the time capsule of the control rooms and golden corridor behind, we were set to visit The New Safe Confinement, also know as The Arch. More than 40 governments helped pay nearly $1.6 billion for its construction. Over 10,000 workers contributed to building the structure, which stands 350 feet tall and 850 feet wide. It was made an astounding array of features to give it a 100-year lifespan or more. Ukrainian President Poroshenko called it “the biggest moving construction that humanity has ever created.” The aging sarcophagus was hastily built in only about six months, while NSC has been in construction for the better part of a decade. The original shelter is well on its way to decaying, and now it’s stability comes mostly from the questionable durability of the reactor walls themselves. The New Safe Confinement structure had to not only be big enough to cover the original sarcophagus, but it needed extra room to allow cranes to deconstruct the old tomb within this new one. It’s an awesome site, inside and out. We toured the outside for part of the morning, and I noticed there was a huge difference in everything about this construction site, from the modern equipment right down to the uniforms of the workers, compared to the ones inside the older parts of the plant we had seen the day before. You could see that the world had come together to create something extremely modern to help contain the site, as we all continue to learn how to deal with such a disaster.

Once inside the arch, there were several rooms to pass through, like layers of protection against what awaited inside. The original sarcophagus is a giant metal concrete and structure that was constructed under hazardous conditions, with very high levels of radiation and severe time constraints. Design of the sarcophagus started on May 20th, 1986, a little over three weeks on from the disaster. It is estimated that within the shelter there are tons of radioactive corium, contaminated dust, and tons of uranium and plutonium. It was first necessary to build a cooling slab under the reactor to prevent the hot nuclear fuel from burning through the foundations. Four hundred coal miners were called upon to dig the required tunnel below the reactor, and by June 24 the necessary 168-meter long tunnel was in place. When we passed through the final checkpoint and radiation detectors, we finally made our way inside the center portion of the arch, there I was standing face to face with the ominous yet very familiar sarcophagus. After taking a few photos, all I could think about were all of the liquidators who risked their lives over the years. Liquidators was the term given to the hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers and civilians, most of them drafted, who cleaned up the site. The liquidators are widely credited with limiting both the immediate and long-term damage from the disaster. Liquidators are qualified for significant social benefits due to their veteran status. Many liquidators were praised as heroes by the Soviet government and the press, while many have struggled for years to have their participation officially recognized. One of the main projects that Clean Futures Fund is involved in is helping provide direct support and resources for the liquidators now living in Slavutych. We were only allowed to be inside the main area of the NSC for about 15 minutes because of safety and radioactive exposure.

Although we did visit the power plant, Pripyat, and surrounding areas a few more times, most of our remaining work was in Slavutych. The city was built in 1986 shortly after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, to provide homes for those who had worked at the plant and their families. The city is mostly home to survivors of the disaster who had to be relocated from the evacuation zone around the reactor, among them about 8,000 people who were children when the tragedy occurred. As a result, the number of people who have a radiation-related illness is high. Many inhabitants still work at the site of the former plant for monitoring, maintenance or scientific purposes. From the start, Slavutych was planned to become a “21st-century city.” Compared to other cities in Ukraine, Slavutych has modern architecture with pleasant surroundings, and the standard of living in the city is much higher than in most other Ukrainian cities. During the construction of the city, workers and architects from eight former Soviet republics became involved: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, and Ukraine. As a result, the city is divided into eight districts named after the capitals of the contributing republics, each with its own unique style and atmosphere.

Lucas and CFF’s home base is in Slavutych, and most of the extraordinary work they are doing is centered there with the people of this quiet and peaceful city. Almost everyone who lives in town is somehow related to The Chernobyl Power Plant in one way or another. One focus for CFF is by helping fund a local rehabilitation center for children and young adults. We had the pleasure of visiting the center a few times during our visit. The center is run by Anna Dmitrievna, a warm and gracious woman who I could tell from the moment I met her that she is perfectly positioned here in her job. She is assisted by one of the leading physicians from the power plant, Dr. Beznoshchenko. Together along with Lucas and the physical therapists we met, they make an excellent team helping the needy young people they serve. They attend art, exercise, music, cooking, and skill gathering classes that they can use outside of the center. I was so inspired seeing the happiness on the people’s faces as Lucas introduced us to them. I saw firsthand he is truly respected by everyone there.

We spent many afternoons in the various neighborhoods of Slavutych doing home visits. Sometimes we would visit children that Clean Futures Fund was already helping, such as one of Lucas’s favorites Andre. During our visit in Ukraine, nearly everyday Lucas would receive a phone call or voicemail from Andre. Lucas talked about Andre often and explained some of his disabilities, which including the ability to walk. He had several procedures before our visit, and we all hoped that his leg braces would be delivered during our time there, but unfortunately, they were not. We did, however, get to visit Andre and his mother at their house and experience the bond between Lucas and this family. We also visited Tatiana, the first person the Lucas helped in town. She had been an engineer at the Nuclear Power Plant since the late 1980s and was part of a team of men and women who daily risked their own health to keep the failed plant as safe as possible. After 20 years, she sought medical help and was diagnosed with thyroid cancer with less than a 50% chance of survival. Lucas along with some of her co-workers from the plant pitched in to help her receive the successful operation. Tatiana’s story actually evolved into the creation of Clean Futures Fund. We enjoyed meeting her and hearing her story over breakfast at her house one morning, and I will never forget her bright pink pajamas and the genuine connection between her and Lucas. We also went to the local orphanage and watched Lucas spread his love to the children there. Some of the other homes we visited included interviewing potential people for CFF to assist, such as young adults and older power plant workers in need of assistance for certain operations, procedures or medications. Dr. Beznoshchenko would accompany us on most visits. We were always warmly welcomed into every home we visited. I particularly loved seeing the insides of the houses and how some were decorated very traditionally Ukrainian, while some of the younger local’s homes were rather modern, depicting the many different “Generations of Chernobyl.”

 

One Sunday morning we were invited to attend the church service at a new Orthodox church in Slavutych. It turned out to be one of my favorite things that I photographed during the entire project. Seeing the beauty of the outside of the building for the first time on that bright but chilly morning was unforgettable, but I was not prepared for the splendor of what was inside. It was possibly the most amazing church I’d ever seen, and the wondrous light streaming in through the windows was awesome. The highlight of the morning was crowned by viewing some of the paintings and icons inside the church, depicting Jesus helping the sick children and first responders from Chernobyl as the explosion from the accident is visible in the background, they were simply marvelous.

One of the most notable and vital things that CFF is doing in the area is by providing assistance to some of the liquidators in need who live in Slavutych. We attended several liquidator meetings, hearing first hand how their monthly pensions were not enough for them to survive, especially for those with serious health issues due to the years of work they did in Chernobyl cleaning up after the accident. Most of them describe the accident and years afterward as “The War,” and unfortunately, they were fighting an invisible enemy. In most cases, it took years or even decades to for these selfless fighters to realize how much damage the enemy had put upon them. Because of the dissolution of the USSR in the 1990s, evaluations about liquidators’ health are difficult, since they come from various countries. Furthermore, the government of Russia has never been keen on giving the correct figures for the disaster, or even on making serious estimates. According to Vyacheslav Grishin of the Chernobyl Union, the primary organization of liquidators, about 60,000 are dead, and some 165,000 are disabled. Another special detail for me on this assignment was being able to witness Lucas, and the staff from CFF provide some of the neediest liquidators with a monetary donation and the chance for me to photograph some portraits of these truly heroic patriots.

As my time in Ukraine was winding down, being able to bring my story full circle and to tie all of the events I had witnessed together was something I searched for every day. It wasn’t until I met Adele, one of the liquidators from the meeting at her home one afternoon that I realized that everything on this project had unfolded in front of me perfectly. Jeff, Rita, and I were greeted by Adele in her modest flat on the outskirts of town, with a huge smile. She was wearing a bright pink striped sweater. As we entered her living room, we could see many other sweaters hanging around as if to decorate the space. But, immediately we were being measured for our size as our host carefully tried to match her handmade wool sweater collection with our varying sizes. It was a wonderful feeling to be welcomed so warmly, and with such personality that she showed. We were ready to start filming and photographing her from the onset. When we asked her if we could get our equipment out and begin to set up, she said it perfect English (but with a heavy Ukrainian accent), “No, first we have conversation.” So, of course, we respected her wishes. We spent the next two hours having coffee, talking, laughing, and listening to her stories. She had worked at The Chernobyl Power Plant for many years, before, during and after “the war.” She had buried a son. She had a disabled grandson with autism that needed help. A close relative was HIV infected with no access to medications. She had many health issues herself. She was embarrassed of her teeth, although she loved to laugh. She could barely survive on the monthly pension she receives. She taught herself to knit those beautiful wool sweaters, which she would NEVER sell, but only give away as gifts. She spent three months in Texas in the U.S. with a family, and that’s how she learned her English. She loved the summers she spent as a young girl in Odesa, a port city in Southern Ukraine known for its famous beaches. We learned all of this and much more about Adele that day. She had a story she wanted to tell, and for us to know that her life meant something. For me, she was brave. She was Ukraine. She was Slavutych. She was Clean Futures Fund. She was Chernobyl.

 

 

 

 

 

*****ABOUT RON*****

After spending the past 15 years founding and working with some of the best and busiest wedding photography studios in the U.S. and photographing over 500 weddings around the globe, Ron B. Wilson has reconnected with his true passions: travel, men’s street style, and fine-art photography. So starting “Art, Style, Flow”, a travel inspiration blog and online magazine featuring his photography, was a natural process and has been a work in progress for the past 20 years.

New York City and Miami Photographer Ron B. Wilson specializes in an award winning fashion based documentary style of photography. Ron was recently featured in Professional Photographer Magazine with an article about the {revisited} sessions that he created, and over the past few years he has been honored with many awards at the WPPI and PPA’s Imaging USA Conferences.

Ron’s primary goal is to tell stories with images and to bring out the very best in every detail of each subject he photographs. He is available for fashion, advertising, travel and editorial assignments.