27 May 2011

Legacy of Chernobyl: Voices of Pripyat

About this project 

April 26, 2011...25 years to the day of the accident at Chernobyl
April 26,1986 was an especially warm day on April 26, 1986, as the people of Pripyat awoke: Pripyat, the town built for the workers and personal of the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl. Parents went to the park pushing their children in their strollers; others walked to work, or woke with thoughts of going to shopping centers, or the music conservatory. They heard trains arrive at the railway or saw cargo ships at the river Pripyat. Pripyat, the “city of the future”  a celebrated city, one of nine atomograds – atom cities– full of hope and possibility.
That day, that warm day in April, how could they know that hours earlier in the night an explosion in the 4th reactor but two miles away at Chernobyl had ripped open a gaping hole, that a radioactive fire was burning, and that they were being bit by bit attacked by something they could not see, touch or feel. Even as they saw soldiers with masks and truck after truck arrive, that something had happened, something that would affect their health, their children’s health, that countries would be affected, lives would be shortened, whole economies weakened, by a single event that would stretch many years into the future. They could not know that their world was about to be stripped, that within 36 hours they would be boarding one of 1,200 buses that would stretch for 15 miles, pointed away from Pripyat. They would have but a single suitcase told that they would return in three days...
But Chernobyl altered time. Three days would become 300 days.. 300 months... 600 years; 600 years and even the clothes on their back would have to be destroyed due to contamination, radioactive contamination, words that they would hear and feel for that year, this year and many years to come.

BACKGROUND –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

I visited Chernobyl and Pripyat in October of 2010. I was not anti-nuclear, just a photographer photographing a history, but being in this strange world of Pripyat where time has stayed still has changed something in me, the first inkling of the power within atoms and the danger and consequence attempting to tame them. At Pripyat is indeed an example of a nuclear moment stretched.
I came back to the United States with an idea to do something with the images. But I had time, and this was one of many projects. And then Japan happened, an earthquake strikes, a tsunami hits, the beginnings of Fukushima into the lexicon and news of a "nuclear problem"... first one reactor, then another, and another, six reactors in all... six potential Chernobyl's. Leaders, company spokespersons claimed that they had things under control, that people would be safe, "Don't worry"– even as evacuations began and dead zones spread...12 kilometers, 20 kilometers, and then 30 kilometers. Headlines in bold letters on CNN for a week, two weeks, then Lybia, then gas prices, then royal weddings amidst smaller text that described nuclear disaster scales, 5, 6, and then 7. The same as Chernobyl...
It was in the beginnings of Fukushima, in the time of hydrogen explosions that my camera gear was stolen. This was camera gear that had taken me years to build up. Having put off insurance for the future, I was left with nothing. Yet Fukushima, Chernobyl, Pripyat, Three Mile Island and all of the near misses, all of these moments stretched, now there is no time to waste and built in me a resolve and a thought of what was important to me.  And two months later I have again bought a camera and gear enough to go back and work at Chernobyl and Pripyat. I must and will return. Pripyat has left an impression in my mind, and in my heart, an impression of life that was and a life to come, a time stamp that can, that is, that will repeat.
“Voices of Pripyat" is a metaphor. Events at Chernobyl spread thousands of kilometers and touched many more lives than the 50,000 citizens of Pripyat. Half a million people were involved in the Chernobyl cleanup– and all were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. See:
In Belarus, where 70% of the fallout from the power plant came, one fifth of the country's agricultural land is contaminated. Food is still tested and will be tested beyond our lifetime.
5000 cases of thyroid cancer diagnosed amongst children and young adolescents in the Ukraine and surrounding areas. Doctors there had spent their careers not seeing children with cancer. This is no longer the case.
The Sami reindeer herders in Finland, thousands of kilometers from Chernobyl have seen their industry decimated with the effects of cesium 37 isotopes for reindeer eat moss and the moss has been contaminated:
A nuclear accident has widespread, devastating consequences. We remember the event, but quickly forget the effect. Chernobyl, forgotten, was 25 years ago. Soon it will be Fukushima’s turn. There are 442 nuclear power plants in the world and another 60 are being built or planned. The catalog of "nuclear" terms continues to expand beyond meltdowns and waste; we now know about spent fuel rods and pools without containment vessels over them. We know about "fail-safe" containments buildings cracking, about hydrogen explosions, sea water into the million of gallons pumped in to cool reactors, about radioactive water being pumped into the ocean, and areas too "hot" (radioactive) to work.
We must act now while the aura of Japan is fresh in our minds, and before more nuclear reactors are built with the false promise of safety. There is something inherently catastrophically dangerous about nuclear energy with man's current level of understanding. "It" is, as if a contained beast, any moment ready to spill out into the environment and leave it’s time stamp. If only we would stop, see and feel the signposts that already exist.

THE FILM –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

Traveling to the Ukraine and going back to Chernobyl and Pripyat, I will do more than photograph, I will create a film that helps people to see, feel and sense the lingering affect of a nuclear accident and to remind them of the potential of another. This is a time in which the nuclear accident at Fukushima begins to fade from consciousness just as had Chernobyl a quarter century ago. Yet Pripyat has continued to speak in a steady voice, of decaying buildings emptied of people, of time stamp images of a 1986 Soviet life, of its strange upside down world where a contaminated nature reclaims a city where wolves roam at night. Haunting images are not enough to remind in these times of nuclear decision. The untold stories of Chernobyl are needed. They have great importance now and for the future. Pripyat is the metaphor. There are the over 500,000 "liquidators" involved in the cleanup, some for many years, most with no ideas as to the risks, short term / long term to their health. Among these, the young soldiers given the choice between a bloody war in Afghanistan or to wage a war with an invisible enemy and ordered into the most dangerous zones. Most are dead.
There are the villagers… Over 250 villages and settlements were evacuated due to the Chernobyl accident - the Chernobyl Exclusion zone now encompasses more than 1,600 square miles of Northern Ukraine and Southern Belarus. Not used to “city life” becoming depressed there are those that resettled, came back to the Chernobyl area and to their “motherland”, the land in which they grew up on and worked, as their parents had and their parents parents. What does it mean to a villager to use terms like exclusion zone when to many of them the “outside” is the exclusion zone and their “inclusion zone” is a land now contaminated?
With stories to hear, document and to share, these people have lived in and through a nuclear disaster and have experience that is tangible for those of us who live in a world of nuclear power plants. And if one thinks they are not close to a reactor, to remind, a nuclear accident can and does spread its wings thousands of miles, as evidenced from the meat of wild boar in Germany, a thousand miles from Chernobyl, which to this day, in many cases, cannot be safely eaten due to high levels of cesium.
When nuclear power companies talk of clean energy and fail safe new designs these voices will remind what is behind the curtain, the potential of a nuclear moment, the incredible power that is being in a sense, toyed with and trusted even with the knowledge of natural disasters - earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and tornadoes. Or mechanical and human failure; terrorist attacks, power grid failures, any and all scenarios, yet to be thought of.
Chernobyl and its crumbling sarcophagus; Pripyat with its slow surrender to nature in its time stamped way are the great beacons reminding humanity to ponder carefully its choices with its incessant quest for energy. The Pripyat voices, the affects of radiation and the many illnesses caused in the short and long term, the displaced, the dead zones, the irradiated landscapes, can these guide us to look inside, and ask deeper questions about the affect of cavalier thought that disregards the danger of catastrophic events that can last centuries? This is what this film will address.
This project will have a use, spark awareness and promote change. So many now have come to understand that the time for nuclear energy is passing. The risks are too great, and the rewards too small when compared to the costs that occur with one Chernobyl, with one Fukushima, with whatever the next name that is spread into nuclear consciousness. To this end, I am interested in building and being part of a community in which many voices are heard. This project has a Facebook forum page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Voices-of-Pripyat-A-FILM-By-RAY-Madrigal/206692392695249 This is for people to exchange views, insights and feelings about nuclear consequence and effect. I will include as a reward (for an upper level pledge) an interview the donor or donors and include excerpts as part of the finished film. Passionate and committed people are needed for change to occur and to grab hold.
The ultimate scope of this undertaking will hinge on the enthusiasm and involvement of many including you. I have deliberately toned down my Kickstarter proposal budget. It is small enough to get it to move forward quickly, as the subject is important and timely. Included in the proposal are modest equipment costs, travel, site permits and accommodations. I will travel to Chernobyl and Pripyat where I will film and photograph. Thanks to a direct relationship with a Ukrainian tour company I will be granted access to places in Pripyat off limits to most tourists. While in the Ukraine I will search out archival footage of Pripyat, pre accident. I am also in contact with an organization that has tracked the Pripyat community, now spread out throughout the world. Most are still in the Ukraine. Some are in the United States where I live. I will seek those who wish to speak, document and share.
There will be costs to come, for archival and music usage and, of course, post production. And what is to come? Much is possible; the film, slideshows, exhibition, large scale prints, a second return to Pripyat and interview, expanded workings with different organizations… the costs easily to run to three to four times the initial kickstart, all with the desire to reach more people with the message that now is the time to move beyond the dangers of nuclear reactors and the danger of their nuclear moments that can stretch into centuries. 

The sarcophagus around reactor number four at Chernobyl is crumbling. Radiation slowly leaks. Make shift, its concrete is failing. A billion dollars will have to be spent to build a new sarcophagus. Impossible to work close to it, the new one will have to be built at a distance away from the site and then rolled over it. The reactor is still lethal and will be thus for centuries to come. Deep in the bowels of the sealed reactor is plutonium with its half-life of 24,000 years. It waits. With each sarcophagus comes a time limit. For one will fail after another. How many will have to be build until we have the technology in which to deal with these levels of radiation? Thus is the legacy of Chernobyl where the scale of time has flipped.
One can see the writing in a child’s notebook and it appears to be written only yesterday, the symbol for 1986 written in Russian. But that yesterday, that warm April day is now 25 years ago. And this notebook lies in the middle of a room that will collapse, in the middle of a city that will become a memory to those who once knew it. The buildings will all be gone, crumbled, contaminated nature in its place. The nuclear question is upon us. I ask you to join me in the voices to be raised, through this project the “Voices of Pripyat”.
Thank you for your support,
Ray Madrigal 

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