“Here, more people die because of drugs and alcohol than radioactivity…” A young local told me, while pointing to the tomb of his best friend…

In April 2016, the world commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster.

But instead of reminding us once more of the overly documented consequences of this infamous accident, I chose to look toward the future: for three years, I photographed the youth of Slavutych, a city purpose-built for those displaced by the disaster. Slavutych also doubles as Ukraine’s youngest city—a town born from the ashes of disaster.

Built in the middle of a forest 40 km away from the destroyed nuclear power plant, Slavutych was supposed to be a showcase for Soviet greatness. Instead, it proved to be one of the Union’s final acts. Since 2000, Chernobyl stopped producing electricity altogether, thereby worsening the economic prospects of the already beleaguered city. It now relies almost exclusively on the construction of the new sarcophagus that will be finished by 2017. After this is completed, no clear plan seems ready to give the city a new outlook towards the future.

My story focuses on the life of Yulia: a teenager I saw transforming into a young adult in front of my camera. As time passed, Yulia changed her occupations. From parties, drinks and short relationships to a married life with a job and serious responsibilities.

She and her friends let me photograph them during this crucial phase of life: the moment when we decide what we want to do of our life, where and with whom. Coincidental to her own growing up, a metamorphosis of her own country was happening in the background, as Ukraine freed itself, painfully, from neighboring Russia. While the country continues to experience aftershocks, the youngsters of Slavutych are facing up to their parents’ mistakes and trying to build a serene and prosperous future amidst a difficult context.

—Niels Ackermann

LC: When did you go to Ukraine for the first time? What was your first project there?

NA: I came to Ukraine for the first time in 2009. With my best friend, we used to travel every summer around Europe. That year, we decided to go further than usual. Our initial goal was Russia but faced with visa requirements and expensive hotels, we opted for Ukraine instead. We knew nothing about the country besides the usual stereotypes: Chernobyl, pretty girls, corruption and, back then, the Orange Revolution. Quickly, we discovered a fascinating country, filled with a generous and open-minded population.

LC: You originally went to Slavutich out of an interest in government-planned communities. Can you say more?

NA: I had very little interest in Chernobyl since for more than 30 years, we had seen the same images over and over. I had grown bored of them. Instead, I wanted to see how a fully planned, born of a disaster city looked. To me, the idea of decreeing the creation of a city out of nothing looked like a failure in the making—like trying to bend rules of gravity.

LC: Your brilliant photoessay provides a deeply human light this much-portrayed catastrophe. What pushed you to focus on such a personal and intimate story?

NA: As I said, I didn’t come to Slavutych to speak about Chernobyl. When I arrived in the city, I realized there was a story with the youth, as this was the youngest city in Ukraine.

I had another piece of great fortune at the beginning: I had no obligations concerning the result. This project was solely for me and my own curiosity. It was paid with my own savings and thus there was no client pressuring me. I could work at the rhythm I wanted. I was able to let the story come to me without looking for it.

Remember: when you’re on assignment, you don’t have such freedom. Especially if you’re sent to a foreign country, you have to produce your story in a very short timeframe and you feel a great sense of obligation to bring something back. This means you rely on what your predecessors have done on the same topic, which means you document and affirm the usual stereotypes about a place. For example, if I had been looking for people with cancer linked to Chernobyl in Slavutych, I certainly would have found some.

But I would have brought back a very narrow story that would completely ignore the much bigger story present in this place.

I was sure until the very last moment that absolutely nobody would like these pictures: there’s no violence, no explicit deaths or sex. Instead, it’s a story about life and love, about turning into an adult. So I’m really happy to see many people responding positively to this project! It gives a sign that we can share stoires without scandals and blood and still find a receptive audience to read them.

LC: What were your visual impressions when you entered Slavutich for the very first time?

NA: My dream had always been to travel through time and see the USSR in the 60s. But when you get off the bus in Slavutych, you find one of the best approximations of that in the contemporary world. The city is built like a theme-park of Soviet life: it’s clean, with few advertisements or cars. It’s a very green city as well, with a huge park in the center. In fact, it’s quite a comfortable town, if a little boring…

LC: How did you first meet Yulia? How did you manage to build such strong empathy with her? What was her reaction upon seeing the completed project?

NA: Meeting Yulia was a great piece of luck, a turning point for the project. I had almost considered quitting on the project altogether when one night, walking in the central park, I saw a young girl (she was 23 back then) trying to kiss a guy. She was jumping all over him, full of life and very funny. This was Yulia. I tried to photograph the scene but it was too dark to focus. We started talking and, luckily, her English was far better than my limited Russian. She had no job at the time and kindly offered to show me the city.

At first, she was more a guide than the hero of the story. But as she introduced me to all of her friends, I began to realize that her life was the most interesting.

That being said, the extreme level of intimacy that we developed during this reportage still fascinates me. Not only with Yulia but with all of the subjects of this project. They all welcomed me with generous, open souls. A key, I think, was the way in which I remained clear with my intentions. I always let them see the pictures and shared any material with them upon request.

They never tried to intervene in my selection and they never asked me to delete an image. Instead, they felt involved.

Towards the end, everyone reacted positively to the results. Even though it’s not easy: could you imagine a picture of you kissing your ex-husband/wife published by all the major media in the world? By giving me their trust, these young people put a lot of responsibility on my shoulders. I knew I had to make sure that what came out of my work was honest and true.

LC: What motivated you to follow this project for three whole years? What were the difficulties in working there for so long, and how about the joys? Do you consider it finished today?

NA: When I started working on Slavutych, I knew it would be at least two years—or nothing. I wanted to take the time to insert myself deeply in the local environment. From the start, I felt it could result in a book (The White Angel, available in French as well, under the title L’Ange Blanc) because it’s the only way to fully control the experience you want to share with the reader.

Later, as the project progressed and I saw Yulia’s life changing—she met Zhenya, her future husband; they moved in together; they married; she started working in Chernobyl like her husband; near the end of the project, they divorced—the calendar developed by itself. As I said, I had no deadline…though in April 2015, when Yulia divorced, I began to see the full circle. As she was looking for the right man again, many of the images I was taking reminded me of the ones I took when I first met her…

Now, the next step for the city is to see what happens next year. While 3,000 people are currently working on Chernobyl’s new confinement system, 2,500 of these workers will lose their jobs when the project is finished. If nothing new is started, the place will undergo a major economic crash. So I will go back to see what the city becomes. I hope they’ll find a solution, though I don’t see one coming…fortunately, I’m not worried for Yulia—her curiosity and openness to new cultures will probably lead her somewhere new soon enough.

—Niels Ackermann, interviewed by Winifred Chiocchia