Revisiting the Recent History of Chernobyl

33 years on from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Ukrainian photographer Maxim Dondyuk brings together his own images and negatives he found abandoned across the surrounding sites to present a different reading of the region’s past.


On the day of 27 April, 1986, people in the cities and villages in the region around Chernobyl heard a notice of a temporary evacuation because of an “adverse radiation situation”. At that moment, not everyone understood that these words meant an explosion at the nuclear power plant in Prypiat. The Soviet government promised people that they would return in a few days. They didn’t allow people to take with them anything except their most necessary belongings, which they would need for this short period. Unfortunately, most people didn’t see their homes again, not to mention priceless items like letters and photos of relatives and friends. With time, these memories were covered with a thick layer of trash, mud and radiation.

Today, for everyone Chernobyl is only associated with a tragedy at the nuclear power plant and its consequences. But what if we go back to the flourishing times that were so far from the events of 1986? This is where the Untitled Project begins.

When I crossed the border of the exclusion zone for the first time, I was fascinated: entire villages and cities were disappearing under heavy branches of trees and shrubs. The once prosperous territories were now watching me silently. My project started as a visual exploration of the abandoned areas, villages and homes. But over time I discovered that these houses, like museums, stored so many memorable things; things that for all this time have just been rotting under a thick layer of trash and mud. Old films, family photographs, postcards, letters. The more time went on, the fewer memories of people who inhabited these lands remained. Looters took everything that was worth something, except these historical objects. I couldn’t watch how a huge part of history was disappearing: all my attention was turned to an attempt to find and save these memories.

This project is like an archaeological dig. Going through heaps of garbage in destroyed houses, I learned more and more about their inhabitants. Lost memories were everywhere: on the floor and under broken furniture, some of them totally destroyed, some still intact. It was impossible to predict whether found films retained at least some images. Everything was covered with dirt. It took lots of time to clean them, dry and organise. Among the photos eaten by mould appeared smiling faces, people on holiday, wedding ceremonies, the birth of children. I didn’t expect to find such a large archive. Chernobyl was no longer associated with death and tragedy for me.

My visual exploration of the present led me to the past, and the two spaces were intertwined with one another. Observing the deserted and silent landscapes of the territories that were destroyed by nuclear energy, at the same time we are witnessing life full of happiness, hope and love. The same villages, the same houses appear to us in the state as they were before nuclear energy pushed humans out of their homes. This is the story in which Chernobyl is still an unknown city for the world: here you won’t find traces of grief or tragedy. This project shows the consequences of nuclear development and the life that existed prior to this destructive force.

So the question is, do we really in need of nuclear power? And do we have the strength to control it?

Words and Pictures by .







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Maxim Dondyuk (b. 1983, Ukraine) is a visual artist, who works with documentary photography, including archival material. His works have been exhibited widely and he was honoured numerous awards, including the Prix Pictet Photography Prize, Lucie Awards and Remi Ochlik Award. Find him on PHmuseum.

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This feature is part of Story of the Week, a selection of relevant projects from our community handpicked by the PHmuseum curators.

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