Earlier this year, to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, a number of newspapers and magazines ran photo essays of pictures taken from inside the exclusion zone, the mostly deserted, highly radioactive area around the power plant. Here are a couple of them.
(I’ve been oddly fascinated with Chernobyl ever since I learned about it in high school–partly, I think, because it happened the year I was born, and so I feel a personal connection with those Chernobyl babies, the ones that survived and the ones that never were.)
The tricky thing about photographing Pripyat, the ghost town around Chernobyl, is that one wants to capture the radiation that makes the area so dangerous, but radiation isn’t visible. It is real–“that-has-been,” to borrow Barthes’ term–but it is one of the few things a photo can’t visually document. The exclusion zone photos, then, have to capture it indirectly, via a recognizable code that belongs to the mode of studium. Peeling wallpaper, a piano without keys, a pile of desks and chairs at an abandoned school, a decaying teddy bear on a child-size bed–these are images that affect me, but I interpret them through a familiarity with the gothic and the ghost story. At some level, they remind me of the Are You Afraid of the Dark? opening credits: an empty swing, a rattling shutter, an attic of forgotten toys. Intellectually, I understand that what happened at Chernobyl was much more serious, but as an enculturated viewer, I see these images from the exclusion zone through the conventions of the horror genre.
As an enculturated viewer, though, I also know, as I click through these photos, that radiation is there in Pripyat even though I can’t see it. Insofar as these photos prick me, it is because they make me think of the photographer, wandering through a contaminated waste where he or she is not supposed to be. Siegfried Kracauer wrote, in a 1927 essay, that photography is special because it can show us nonhuman perspectives:
For the first time in history, photography brings to the fore the entire natural shell; or the first time the inert world presents itself in its independence from human beings. Photography shows cities in aerial shots, brings crockets and figures down from the Gothic cathedrals; all spatial configurations are incorporated into the central archive in unusual combinations that distance them from human proximity.
For Kracauer, what differentiates photography from other art forms is that humans do not make it. The camera can capture aerial views and unusual perspectives that the human eye cannot normally access. It shows us a world without us. So do the Chernobyl photos–they show a world deserted by humans–but with them, I think of something different. Their punctum, for me, is of a second order: it is the thought of the photographer’s vulnerable human body, exposed to radiation, collecting images to bring back to the rest of us.