The only funny photograph in Jenny Norris’ exhibit After Chernobyl, on display at the Ukrainian Institute in Manhattan until April 30, shows an old man with a sign around his neck reading (in Ukrainian) “Careful! Radioactive!” The story behind the shot isn’t very funny, though. The man was a former liquidator, one of around 800,000 miners, firefighters, soldiers and doctors sent to clean up the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant after an explosion on April 26, 1986 released a giant cloud of radioactive debris into the atmosphere. Norris found him in Kiev, where he and 2,000 other liquidators were protesting steep cuts to their medical compensation. Studies suggest that thousands — and perhaps hundreds of thousands — of these men will die from ailments caused by exposure to radioactivity at the site.
People are mostly absent from the rest of the photographs in After Chernobyl, which Norris, a Bushwick-based photographer, shot during her first trip to the Ukraine in March. Taken six days before a 46-foot tsunami led to the second worst nuclear disaster of all time, they foreshadow the new and improved post-apocalyptic images that shortly came flooding out of Northern Japan.
During her stay, Norris interviewed over one hundred liquidators, many of whom admitted to being drunk while building the sarcophagus that encloses Reactor 4. (Alcohol, especially vodka, was suggested for its alleged anti-radiation properties — advice that Vice followed when they went to Chernobyl to hunt “radioactive beasts” in 2007.) She also interviewed one of the Ukrainian engineers that built Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor (he is now anti-nuclear energy). When asked for his thoughts on Fukushima, he told her: “It won’t be as bad as Chernobyl, because the Japanese actually care for their people, unlike the Soviets.”
Her trip wasn’t totally bleak. Her tour of Chernobyl included 10 “super goofy” Swedish guys fresh off a weekend of barhopping through Kiev, she said. At one point they formed a human pyramid for a photo in front of the sarcophagus. This does not appear in the show, unfortunately, but it’s still well worth checking out.
Click through below to check out a slideshow of Norris’s work.