The accident was instantaneous. On Saturday, April 26, 1986, at 1:23 in the morning, reactor number four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded then caught fire, sending a plume of radioactive smoke across the Soviet Union and Northern Europe. Twenty-five years later, the aftermath of the disaster continues. Even today, some wildlife and livestock as far away as Germany and Norway are contaminated with high levels of radiation due to the residual radioactivity in the plants they eat. At least 27,000 excess cancer deaths (and, according to one study, as many as 900,000 deaths) are attributed to the incident. And the danger persists: A concrete sarcophagus encloses the plant’s radioactive debris, which will stay hazardous for thousands of years.
With his recently published monograph, Homage, photographer Jim Krantz has documented the lasting disfigurement caused by the Chernobyl disaster. Krantz focuses his lens on the people and places that have suffered most from the accident: the former nuclear workers’ town of Prypiat, now a ghost city, and the more than 100,000 people who were displaced by the accident.
The images of abandonment are haunting. A line of coats left to rot and a desk left perfectly in place hint at the speed of the evacuation. It must have been like fleeing a flood or a fire – except that the threat was invisible, which only made it more terrifying.
Krantz’s portraits of the people whose lives were shattered by the meltdown are especially heartbreaking. Many of those who suffered the loss of their homes or harm to their families have tried to salve their wounds with drink. One woman invited Krantz into her home to photograph her deformed daughter. When Krantz returned a year later, the child was dead, and the mother had fallen into a drunken oblivion.
And yet embedded in these horrors there is a consolation – or at least a measure of hope for the future. The Ukrainian government maintains a 1,100-square-mile “Exclusion Zone” around the damaged reactor that people are prohibited from entering. Without humans around, something amazing has happened: The ecosystem has flourished. Lynx, boar, wolves, bear, and bison thrive in the area. Grass and saplings have taken over the concrete. It’s an encouraging coda: Despite all of our destruction, nature finds a way to heal itself. The wilderness returns after being ravaged.
Jim Krantz’s photographs have been shown at galleries across the United States and are included in the permanent collections of the George Eastman House and the Sheldon Museum of Art. In 2010 he was recognized as the Lucie Awards International Photographer of the Year. See more of his work at www.jimkrantz.com.