“Inside Chernobyl,” an exhibition by photographer and Fulbright scholar Michael Forster Rothbart, recently made its debut in Kyiv, and will be making its way to such places as Moscow and Washington D.C.
Forster Rothbart’s undertaking is quite unexpected, standing in contrast to the usual Chernobyl fare; under the subtitle of “life goes on,” he tells the stories of ordinary Ukrainians who still work at the infamous Chernobyl nuclear plant, as well as the families they come home to every day.
Curious about his premise, I chatted with Forster Rothbart about the exhibition, his subjects and the ongoing narrative that is Chernobyl.
First of all, how did such an unusual project come about?
I came to Ukraine for the first time in 2007; my wife was doing research for her dissertation at the time. I was here for four months, and that’s when I first got started. I had studied previous photographic work on Chernobyl, and so I was prepared to see mutations, birth defects and people dying of cancer. You know, the usual stuff. That’s the world’s image of Chernobyl but it’s not the reality. What intrigues me are all the normal people in the region who are simply living their lives — farming the land or going to work at the Chernobyl plant. They didn’t move away, they stayed behind. The plant workers are now doing important work to ensure that there won’t be future contamination.
I am fascinated by the human consequences of environmental problems. Journalists cover environmental disasters as breaking news, and then they get filed away, but the repercussions continue. It’s important to look at Chernobyl a generation later. There are health effects that come directly from radiation, but then there are secondary effects that occur when people are relocated or lose family members or lose jobs. All of these social problems are more serious than health problems.
Really? More serious than health problems?
Medical problems are a small piece of the morass of issues related to Chernobyl, but people tend to forget that.
So tell me about these people that you are profiling.
For this exhibit, I spent time with five families in Slavutych to get a sense of their daily lives. The main work at the Chernobyl plant now involves decommissioning the facilty, and construction is just starting on the New Safe Confinement that will replace the old Shelter (AKA Sarcophagus). I don’t want to diminish what they are doing. But I couldn’t help but notice that the purpose of their work is to tear down what they once built. They’re worried about losing their jobs, worried about their salaries, their children’s futures.
The city of Slavutych was built for the plant, you know. Once the plant is fully shuttered, nobody knows what their future will look like.
I also spent 3 months last year living in the small village of Sukachi, near the Exclusion Zone. In some ways, more overall project is an exploration of rural life in Ukraine, with Chernobyl looming in the background.
Can we discuss the huge disconnect between rural Ukraine and urban Ukraine? It’s a bit like rural and urban Russian, isn’t it? People have this image of the country based on the urban centers, but that’s not the whole story.
The difference between Kyiv and a Ukrainian village is bigger than the difference between Kyiv and an American city. Going from Kyiv to the village is like going between two different civilizations, and yet even the hippest fashionista in the urban center has a babushka in a village somewhere. What I discovered in my project is something more specific — Ukrainians have very strong ties to the land, and this sense of home informs how people live their lives.
These are people who chose to remain, despite everything.
There is also the specific disconnect we have in relation to Chernobyl – both Ukrainians and the rest of the world. Would you agree?
Chernobyl is history to people, they think about it as something that once happened. Many people don’t want to talk about it, like veterans in the U.S. don’t want to talk about the Vietnam War.
Outsiders have misconceptions about what life is like in the Chernobyl Zone and how it goes on in the affected areas. I come back from a week in Sukachi and Kyiv friends ask if I’m going to turn off the lights and glow all night — they’re joking to hide a real discomfort. But we still know very little about the long-term effects of the fallout. So little research has been done.
There are some places within the plant that are still extremely radioactive. On the other hand, in places like Pripyat you also get radiation exposure, but no mre than you’d get on an airplane. It’s all a question of what you’re familiar with and what you consider normal.
I’ve had people hurl Chernobyl-related insults at me because I was born in Ukraine. I think a lot of the kids of my generation had to endure that. It’s just one of the aspects of how people relate to Chernobyl. We create a caricature of it and forget the reality.
Well, maybe people in Kiev and elsewhere will be surprised to learn that the families living around Chernobyl are not so different from themselves. This is one of the aims of this project, to create a sense of recognition and familiarity instead of the gulf that’s in place now.
And I want people who work there to feel proud about the crucial work that they’re doing. I want the public to see why they made the life choices they did, why they chose to stay.