Former Chernobyl plant worker Sergii Kasyanchuk manages the Chernobyl Information Center museum. His health no longer allows him to enter the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. He, like everyone else who worked at the plant, knows people who became ill or died due to Chernobyl. But this doesn't stop their friends and family from working at the plant. Would it stop you? Photo: Michael Forster Rothbart

By Michael Forster Rothbart

(Mother Jones) – Photojournalists often distort the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion. They parachute in, expecting danger and despair, then leave after a few brief days with photos of deformed children and abandoned buildings. This sensationalist approach obscures the more complex stories about how a displaced community adapts and survives. There is suffering, yes. But there's also joy and beauty. Endurance and hope.

Overall, some 350,000 people were displaced by the nuclear accident, and six million continue to live in contaminated areas. For many of the evacuees I interviewed about Chernobyl, losing their homes was as traumatic as the accident itself. In the two years I spent living in the villages I photographed I heard compelling stories about alcoholism, mental illness, unemployment, and crime. Vova likes to go mushroom hunting with his in-laws, despite government warnings against it. Viktor survived cancer treatment only to watch his wife Lydia develop cancer as well. Vasily would die before he would live anywhere else.

I am both an artist and an environmentalist, and I find that the two cross-pollinate in my photography. In this project I examine the human impacts of environmental change. Why do some overcome difficulties while others surrender to them? What does it mean when your home is irreparably changed?

Chernobyl's Half Lives

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