The Chernobyl disaster, more than anything else, opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue…I must say that I started to think about time in terms of pre-Chernobyl and post-Chernobyl.

—Mikhail Gorbachev, from the introduction to The Long Shadow of Chernobyl


On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s reactor #4 blew up after its operators botched a safety test. Almost immediately, a plume of highly radioactive material was sent shooting up into the atmosphere. The longer-term consequences were not as readily apparent.

Today, we know that the radioactive fallout scattered some tens of thousands of square kilometers across three countries (Ukraine, Belarus and Russia), with some fallout even reaching out into the rest of Europe. We know that the accident forced some quarter million people to move permanently from their homes. But perhaps what we don’t know—and what these photographs urgently try to show us—is that the long shadow of Chernobyl continues to darken countless lives to this day.

The book, like the disaster itself, is a serious matter. Translated into three different languages (English, French, German), the book is introduced, soberly, by the last leader of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev and filled with powerful photograph after powerful photograph.

These images did not come about overnight—long-time National Geographic contributor Gerd Ludwig spent some two decades producing the pictures that comprise this affecting book. On almost every page, the fruits of Ludwig’s steady and sustained labors are evident. While we may feel numbed to the ever-changing images of disaster on the newspapers’ front pages, what Ludwig’s photos make us feel so urgently is that Chernobyl is not just another incident and not just another headline. The longevity of Ludwig’s project makes us feel the historical significance of this event. It is an event with decades—probably centuries-long—repercussions that we should be taking very, very seriously.

Ludwig approaches his topic from several different perspectives, as reflected in the book’s thematic sections. In the beginning, we are offered a variety of views—historical, political, personal. This overture is followed by the project’s most difficult section, “Victims.” Again, in contrast to daily photojournalism, these are not snaps, Ludwig is not a tragedy-grabbing opportunist. Ludwig came back to this area year after year, decade after decade and his connection to the subjects makes us feel similarly involved with the stories at hand.

Next, we explore the (semi-)abandoned city of Pripyat. Before the accident, the area had some 50,000 residents. Today, the former city has been transformed into a chilling tourist destination. Since the Ukrainian government began to permit “Chernoybl tour groups,” the ghost-town has endured a proliferation of large-scale disaster tourists. Although one might hope that these destruction-tours could offer similar lessons as Ludwig’s project, the pictures in the book indicate a glibness to their experiences. As Ludwig writes, “the solitary doll, artfully [artificially] arranged, has become a common sight.” In other words, the tragedy has been subtly transformed into spectacle.

At the heart of the book, we find pictures from the blown reactor itself. To reach the reactor, Ludwig had to seek access to a place where few other photographers have ever set foot. In his own words, “It was the most challenging photographic situation I have ever encountered. The space was dark, loud, and claustrophobic; and I knew that I had less than 15 minutes to capture arresting images of an environment that few have ever seen.”

The book closes with some amazing and unexpected pictures from the 30-km exclusion zone surrounding Chernobyl. Amidst the ruins and growing wilderness, Ludwig discovered elderly locals who ignored the government’s repeated calls to evacuate and made their way back to their homes in order to live (and die) in their familiar environs. These are some of the most touching images in the whole volume, a testament to Ludwig’s desire, “to act in the name of silent victims, to give them a voice in my pictures.”

***

By the time we have reached the end of the book, Ludwig has powerfully communicated the gravity of the ongoing situation in Chernobyl. Although Gorbachev’s plea at the beginning of the book might feel anachronistic, out of date (a bit like Gorbachev himself), we overlook the urgency of his words (and Ludwig’s photos) at our own peril. After all, the events at Fukushima happened just a few years ago, Iran’s nuclear capabilities are in the news every single day and the international community took almost 30 years to fully determine how they would contain the nuclear fuel roads lying at the center of Chernobyl.

As we close the book, another thing is very clear: while the ravages of war, of disease, of natural disaster are terrible, the effects of nuclear catastrophe simply cannot be understood on a human scale. In the words of noted scientist Alexei Okeanov, the ramifications of Chernobyl are like “a fire that can’t be put out in our lifetimes.”

—Alexander Strecker

The Long Shadow of Chernobyl
(English, German and French Edition)
by Gerd Ludwig
Publisher: Edition Lammerhuber
Hardcover: 252 pages