On April 26th, 1986, a catastrophic accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine sent radioactive particles into the air, distributing toxic pollution over a vast area. It has since gone down in history as one of the worst disasters of its kind.
31 people died in the blast, but the long-term effects have been felt ever since. Cancer and other radiation-exposure problems still plague citizens, and contamination in their water and soil remain a burden.
No people know these problems better than those who live near the “Nuclear Exclusion Zone,” the area within a 19-mile radius of the plant, where radiation levels are still exceedingly high. 350,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes after the accident, and many still form a community on the edge of a wasteland.
Photographer Thom Davies, who is also a trained geographer and ethnographer, has been working to understand and document this community since 2008. As part of his studies, Davies gave people who lived close to the Exclusion Zone disposable cameras and asked them to document their everyday lives in their extraordinary surroundings.
“The photographs give a rare glimpse into the unseen realities of everyday life in this post-atomic hinterland,” Davies says of the project, called “Disposable Citizens.” “No one understands the realities of Chernobyl like those who live there.”
'There is something truly enigmatic about nuclear landscapes,' Davies says when asked why he is drawn to nuclear radiation zones. 'They are places where broken science and everyday-life have collided, leaving disputed consequences and many unanswered questions.'
As a geographer first and a photographer second, he says he is 'fascinated by the relationship people have with landscape, and in a post-atomic space such as Chernobyl, this relationship becomes strained and contested.'
'The invisibility of radiation adds another layer of mystery to these places and the communities who live there,' he adds.
Davies has lost count of how many times he's been to the Nuclear Exclusion Zone in Chernobyl. His project started in 2008 and he has been examining the area every since.
While the meltdown at Chernobyl was a global disaster, Davies says that 'how the tragedy is experienced and understood is truly local in nature, and woven into the day-to-day rhythms of life around the Exclusion Zone.'
It is from this concept that he arrived upon the idea of giving citizens near the Exclusion Zone their own cameras to document their lives. 'The real experts are those who live in these landscapes everyday,' Davies says.
Davies says he got a lot of influence from many photographers who have captured the area and its people in the past. 'But,' he says, 'I wanted to put the power of the image into the hands of those I was researching. After all, it's the people who live near Chernobyl who know these places better than anyone.'
'I wanted this project to be as participatory as possible, and allow people to tell their own stories,' Davies continues. 'I'm more interested in the images that my research participants make than my own.'
The project was a long process for Davies, taking years to complete after making connections and ingratiating himself into the community. 'Sometimes I would leave the cameras with families for months at a time, and then would return later with the developed photographs to discuss the images,' he says.
'It was a fascinating process and the participants really enjoyed being involved,' Davies says. 'I learned things about Chernobyl that I wouldn't have been able to without photography.'
Davies describes the people in the Exclusion Zone as some of the kindest people he has ever met. 'I would often be invited into people's kitchens to eat delicious homegrown food, and listen to their memories of Chernobyl or the collapse of the USSR, often while drinking local samogon, a type of local moonshine,' he explains.
While Davies was somewhat concerned about radiation the food and drink, 'It would have been really rude to turn down offers of hospitality, so eating and drinking became central to the research,' he says.
Davies explains that these people do not want to leave the Chernobyl area. They were brought up there and have long and deep family histories on the land. 'This is home (for them),' Davies says.
'For many, the threat of being forcibly evacuated -- which was the fate of roughly 350,000 other Soviet citizens after the accident -- is considered worse than staying and living with the invisible threat of radiation,' Davies says.
Every person Davies spoke to had a story of losing loved one or suffering from the disaster. They often showed him photos of their deceased fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives.
'I wanted to understand what it's like to live in a toxic environment, that's full of so much uncertainty. Everyone in the villages near Chernobyl has been touched by the accident in some way,' Davies says.
Many citizens feel that their needs have been neglected by the Ukrainian government and left to suffer in silence. They feel like they are 'disposable,' like the title of Davies's series.
'Radiation remains invisible in Chernobyl, but poverty isn't,' Davies explains. 'The Ukrainian economy is on its knees, and it is marginalized people like those who live near Chernobyl who are being hit the hardest.'
Citizens in the Exclusion Zone are promised repeated compensation by the government so they can buy things like uncontaminated food, but the subsidies actually given each month aren't enough to buy a single loaf of bread.
Certain members of the UN have recently presented the idea of compensation for Chernobyl citizens creating a 'victim mentality' in their communities. Davies strongly disagrees: 'The people I met... are incredibly resourceful, hard working, and proud of their ability to cope on their own. They just want more respect from a government that they feel has abandoned them.'
Davies hopes these images help to dispel the myth of these nuclear disaster areas as being dead, decaying, and uninhabited places. 'It is home to many people who dwell in the shadow of uncertainty and nuclear pollution, but also by people who laugh, cry, fall in love, and live lives that we would all recognise,' he says.
Davies also hopes that these photographs might help viewers understand that the effects of nuclear accidents are felt much deeper and longer than simple death tolls and body counts.
'These disasters create displacement on a massive scale, forced migration and overwhelming feelings of loss and abandonment. These immeasurable social problems remain hidden from view,' he says.
'It's not a fixed event that can be consigned to history and forgotten about. Chernobyl is happening right now,' he says.
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