Photo exhibition offers glimpse of life after Chernobyl

The Chernobyl disaster drew international attention, spurring discussions about the future of nuclear energy. Now, with Japan facing a nuclear crisis of its own, and the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl approaching, a new photo exhibition captures the everyday lives of the people still living in the shadow of a major nuclear disaster.

Photojournalist Michael Forster Rothbart spent two years living in Ukraine, where he followed the lives of 12 families that lived through the April 26, 1986 accident and aftermath. Those images, taken of the hundreds of people he photographed, make up the exhibition, “After Chernobyl,” on display through May 20 at the Harper Memorial Library Commons.

Forster Rothbart and Timothy Mousseau of the University of South Carolina’s Chernobyl Research Initiative will speak about the lasting impact of Chernobyl at a reception at 6 p.m. on April 8.

Forster Rothbart hopes the exhibition will draw attention to the day-to-day resilience shown by the residents of Chernobyl.

“As photojournalists, we are guilty of photographing the most dramatic things we can find,” Forster Rothbart said. Yet as he spent more time around the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone — the half-abandoned, contaminated area near the site — he felt compelled to capture more than the familiar images of abandoned buildings.

Instead, he tried to show the everyday joys and sorrows of life in Chernobyl. “In one sense, [the disaster] is still very much a part of people’s lives,” Forster Rothbart said. “But on the other hand, it just becomes normal. The closer you are to Chernobyl, the less frightening it is.”

More than just a stop on a tour

The impacts of the disaster are still being felt. The region remains economically depressed and environmentally devastated, residents still face an elevated risk of thyroid cancer, and alcoholism and mental illness are all too common.

Still, residents have done their best to carry on and challenge the common misperceptions about their lives. “As one teenager told me, ‘We’re not mutants,’” Forster Rothbart recalled.

Recent years have seen an influx of tourism in the region, a phenomenon that attracts a wide range of responses from residents. Some are grateful for the economic benefits of tourism, while others are “disappointed that the tourists are interested in the Chernobyl site, but not the society or culture,” Forster Rothbart said. “Busloads of tourists come in, and they stand in front of the plant to take pictures, and they go to Pripyat, the city one mile from Chernobyl, but they’re not interested in the lives of the people who are still living there.”

Andy Graan, the outreach coordinator of the Center for Eastern European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, which sponsored the exhibition, said “After Chernobyl” offers a rare glimpse into life in the aftermath of a major nuclear disaster.

“Images offer more complex windows into some of the everyday experiences that have taken place around an event as tremendous and as frightening as the Chernobyl disaster,” Graan said. “I think the photos provide a way to humanize the experience.”

Although the exhibition was planned long before the current nuclear crisis in Japan, organizers hope it will start a conversation about nuclear power and energy use.

“We realized the exhibition would be great opportunity to think about the consequences of those choices,” Graan said. “With the very tragic and still unfolding events in Japan, there’s renewed interest and concern about nuclear power specifically. What we have learned from Chernobyl will surely be quite important for people to think about.”

“After Chernobyl” is sponsored by the CEERES, the Center for International Studies, the Program on the Global Environment, the Global Health Initiative, the Arts Council, Harper Memorial Library Commons, and the Soviet Arts Experience.

“After Chernobyl” is on view at the Harper Memorial Library Commons, Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The exhibition is free and open to the public.