Maxim Dondyuk restores the memory of Chernobyl in photos
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone spans 1,000 square miles of dense woodland and abandoned farmsteads, pockmarked by the historical town of Chernobyl and the industrial city of Pripyat. Where once over 100,000 people resided only a few hundred now remain at their own risk. Ringed by barbed wire, sandpits, and armed checkpoints, The Zone is as inaccessible as it is dilapidated. The nucleus of this alien landscape spews radiation from the cracks in its hulking steel Sarcophagus to this day. To spare our health we have since hidden Reactor 4 under an additional 31,000 tons of steel with the New Safe Confinement - a record setting effort. Now hidden from sight, the memory of the Chernobyl disaster of April 1986 remains seared into the minds of thousands who once called this land home and many thousands more who ended up knowing it as a warzone.
Memory manifests itself in many ways, in souvenirs from a childhood holiday and keepsakes from the one that got away. Objects you hold dear can personify the story of your life, but only you know what they really represent. It takes a certain introspection to see the true value of a trinket. The locket holds great sentiment only for the one who bears it and the photo album is a collaborative centrepiece of the family unit. While each may be passed down generationally, every subsequent change of hands is one step removed from the lived experiences they represent. The photograph may be considered the ultimate subjective record of events; the who, what, where, and when. This makes them exceptional mementos - the advent of commercial photography and ensuing proliferation of the photo album in the Victorian era exemplifies this. Despite this, the need for first hand interpretation persits to some degree. So what happens when a family photo is lost and found?
Maxim Dondyuk spent two years from 2016 painstakingly scouring the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone for traces of lost memories. Among the muck and rubble of three decades of neglect were thousands of photographic prints and rolls upon rolls of film. Weddings, family outings, the mundanities of every-day life. Every scrap could reveal a glimpse into the memories of thousands. What started out as a curious adventure through an extraterrestrial
landscape ended up as a thorough chronicle of an entire community lost to history.
"This is a time-crossing project that explores memory, territory, atomic energy, and nature. It started as a contemplation of emptiness and silence of abandoned territory. I was fascinated by how entire villages and cities were disappearing under heavy branches of trees and shrubs; by how nature was being recovered after human error.
But soon it turned into an exploration of the past that existed in Chernobyl long before the nuclear disaster. Abandoned, nearly destroyed houses, like historical museums stored so many memorable things of those who left in a hurry: old films, family albums, postcards, letters - all these years the memories had been exposed to nature and radiation."
Images by Maxim Dondyuk
Words by Joe Burrows