Ukrainian photographer Maxim Dondyuk has been accumulating and archiving photographs and negatives that he has discovered within the Chernobyl exclusion space for the final six years. He has rescued round 15,000 artifacts, which embrace movies, photographs, postcards, and letters, however with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he has been compelled to place his Untitled Project from Chernobyl on maintain.
“My first acquaintance with the restricted areas was in 2008,” Dondyuk tells PetaPixel. “I labored again then as a photojournalist. The place [Pripyat, the Ukrainian city ravaged by Chernobyl’s nuclear disaster of 1986] fascinated me after I noticed the homes left in a rush and nature that step by step changed the traces of people.
“However my actual understanding of the Chernobyl exclusion zone began in 2016 after I got here there once more after I witnessed and photographed revolution and battle in Ukraine. From that very second, I started to see and really feel all the things in a different way there.
“I used to be not in search of a reportage taking pictures. I used to be desirous about contemplation and visible exploration of the realm I photographed. I used to be desirous about distinctive buildings, varied rural homes with distinctive structure, and traces of army installations on this zone.
“I started to be fascinated extra about landscapes, which I feel can inform rather more about what occurred than the info and occasions themselves. The ruins left by battle, in my view, present much more horrors in regards to the battle than the bloody occasions that I shot in 2014, being with [the] Ukrainian military on the frontline.”
Frozen in Time After a Nuclear Catastrophe
Chernobyl’s blast was the worst nuclear disaster in history, both in cost and casualties. Dondyuk tells us that within the Chernobyl zone, all practically destroyed homes and monuments have preserved the reminiscence of the previous period.
“That is what attracts me,” explains the Ukrainian photographer. “It takes me again about 30 years. In any case, time stopped right here in 1986, within the period of the Soviet Union. Letters, furnishings, structure, all this was frozen in time. And that is fascinating.
“I’m fiercely against the Soviet Authorities and what the Soviet Union did. However on the identical time, as a person of artwork, visible, architectural, historic monuments and objects are expensive to me.”
Each recovered picture reminded Dondyuk of the nation the place he was born. He discovered letters and photographs of people that lived in these areas sometimes. These prompted him to be taught as a lot as doable about what was within the Chernobyl space earlier than the explosion, and to save lots of these visible and historic objects, even when no person bothered to do it for greater than 30 years.
At first, the documentarian thought there can be a number of photographs and possibly some postcards. However the large archive that he started to uncover completely stunned him.
The Soviet authorities evacuated over 100,000 residents in a short time, promising them that they might return in just a few days, and didn’t allow them even to take alongside priceless heirlooms or photographs of household and buddies. The official broadcast advised them to take solely “extremely crucial issues …throughout this short-term evacuation”.
“Think about that every one photographs of your loved ones, your grandparents disappeared perpetually, and also you don’t have these recollections anymore,” questions Dondyuk. “This [is] what occurred to these folks. They didn’t understand throughout the second of evacuation that [they] would by no means be again to their houses the place they had been born, or the place they lived their entire life.”
From 2016 Till the Russian Invasion
Dondyuk began engaged on this mission in 2016 and made a number of journeys to the Chernobyl zone within the subsequent two years. The longest and most necessary expedition came about final summer season, in 2021. Accompanied by his spouse Irina, he lived for 3 months (video under) within the Chernobyl zone, and the couple explored villages each day on foot, overlaying just a few hundred miles.
Every village had at the very least one photographer who recorded occasions and necessary happenings, says Donkyuk. When he discovers that home, he’s essentially the most happy as he comes up with a treasure trove of photographs that document birthday events, dancing within the woods, and weddings in that neighborhood.
The passionate documentarian doesn’t search for essentially the most memorable, most necessary, or most attention-grabbing picture as all photographs are “memorable” to him and worthy of safekeeping.
“I by no means considered it as one thing attention-grabbing or necessary,” says spouse and studio supervisor Irina. “However final summer season, after we spent a lot time within the zone, all the things has modified for me. I fell in love with the place, I understood and felt the realm, and the realm opened as much as me too. It’s incomparable to once you come there as a vacationer and spend like a day or two–that’s nothing.”
“However once you stay there for 3 months, each morning you go to these deserted locations and see wild animals, take heed to sounds of nature, ponder throughout you–there may be nothing else on the earth, simply you and nature,” says Irina. “It’s attention-grabbing to think about how these locations regarded 40-60 years in the past. That is an unforgettable expertise.”
The photographic couple travels loads too, and for the final three years have lived in Asia–Thailand, Vietnam. Final summer season, they got here again to Ukraine to proceed their work on the Chernobyl mission, as they managed to get funding for a three-month expedition.
Discovering the Photographs is Not Simple
“This mission is like an archaeological dig,” says Dondyuk, the finalist of the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography. “As none of those historic objects had been laying clear on a desk or a shelf. All of those had been mendacity beneath a thick layer of mud and trash in deserted, practically destroyed homes.
“They had been on the ground, beneath damaged furnishings, in all places, so I needed to rifle by means of heaps of rubbish to seek out all these artifacts. All the pieces was lined with filth and regarded like rubbish.”
Earlier than Dondyuk, born three years earlier than the nuclear reactor exploded, goes into an deserted home and begins looking out peoples’ recollections, he paperwork the house or the encircling space.
Something and all the things within the exclusion zone is taken into account to be radioactive trash, and the Ukrainian authorities doesn’t enable its removing. Nonetheless, Dondyuk has managed to hide the photographs at checkpoint searches and “smuggle” them out to assist construct the misplaced archive.
15,000 Artifacts Rescued and Counting
The recovered photographs and negatives are digitized on a scanner. Injury, blemishes, and imperfections usually are not eliminated and even suppressed in Photoshop. There are only a few shade movies and photographs. A lot of the photographs are in black and white as nearly no shade movie was obtainable throughout the Soviet Period. It was solely within the Nineteen Nineties that shade movie began trickling in.
Dondyuk (b.1983) has explored nearly half of the Chernobyl exclusion zone—each single home in 20 deserted villages has been solely lined. Round 15,000 artifacts, together with movies, photographs, postcards, and letters, have been rescued. Nonetheless, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has put the brakes on his salvage operation.
“And I hope this isn’t the top, and I’ll be capable to end this work sooner or later when the battle is over,” bemoans the Ukrainian photographer. “Yearly, all these artifacts are being destroyed by radiation, nature, and pure disasters, resembling wildfires, throughout which many villages are wiped off the face of the earth.
“That’s the reason this can be very necessary for me to seek out and protect the surviving remnants of the historical past of this area whereas we nonetheless have one thing to save lots of. The battle doesn’t change my severe perspective towards this mission. It has not grow to be much less necessary. However sadly, it’s not doable to proceed my work there except all this insanity ends.”
At present, the couple retains an Instagram account up to date with their finds from the as soon as nuclear wasteland. They’ve additionally exhibited at picture festivals in Bogota, Colombia, and Hamburg, Germany.
As soon as the battle ends and a way of normalcy returns to this tortured land, Dondyuk will return to looking for extra photographs and negatives that might end in a multimedia web site archive, e book, and exhibitions.
“The thought is to discover each single village, each single home within the Chernobyl exclusion zone,” provides Dondyuk.
Concerning the writer: Phil Mistry is a photographer and trainer based mostly in Atlanta, GA. He began one of many first digital digicam courses in New York Metropolis at The International Center of Photography within the 90s. He was the director and trainer for Sony/Fashionable Pictures journal’s Digital Days Workshops. You possibly can attain him here.
Picture credit: All photographs equipped by Maxim Dondyuk.