If you're from the West and elsewhere and not as familiar with the history of everything that went down east of the Berlin Wall, you might, however, have come across the new historical HBO TV mini series "Chernobyl" (2019). If you haven't yet, I highly recommend it! Wait, what does this have to do with photography?
The horrific accident that occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear plant on 26 April 1986 "is considered the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history, both in terms of cost and casualties. It is one of only two nuclear energy accidents classified as a level 7 event—the maximum classification—on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the other being the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan". Although I don't want to dive into history (as much as I love history!), but I want to talk about the importance of visuals.
History can seem a dry, boring subject to some (why do we need to know what happened? We care about the future!), I find it abso-fucking-lutely fascinating. My only regret is not being a time traveller with a camera in hand. I remember growing up and learning about Chernobyl in school, in passing. Never a deeply investigated subject, just something we touched on. You know, it happened. These are the dates, so don't forget it for your test or exam (the number 1986 is ingrained in my brain).
But, as I am today, someone who studied history and criminology for three years, someone who has fallen in love with documentary and street photography, and someone who was born before USSR was officially dissolved, I have only just realised I have had access to such vast opportunities to document events, life, experiences, and life stories of those who are still here with us today, and I haven't done anything with it. Sure, I could come up with excuses that I have built life elsewhere now (in the UK), and maybe it's too late for me to do anything because most has already been done years before me. But, these mini series really hit home.
For those struggling to put the facts and visuals together, documentary photography accompanied with words can be godsend. But, when you see a beautifully executed TV series that pull you right back to 1986, it suddenly becomes real. Suddenly, it's not three paragraphs you've read in a history book and forgot about immediately, suddenly it becomes so real, so felt, so recent. Forget the dry facts, actually. Listening, seeing and immersing yourself in this is a strong reminder that these are people's lives, these are generations so close to ours, and a land that's not that far away either.
I'm a strong believer that we all (let's exclude those who can't physically feel it) are capable of feeling empathy, that policies, religion, politics, and everything aside, deep underneath we can all feel it. Dry words on a piece of paper may not do the job, all the victims eventually just become "numbers". But, when you look in the face of darkness, you will feel it. When you see the empty bedrooms and all the toys that didn't fit in the suitcase being left behind, you will feel it. When you see the eerie remnants of the history of families and the years they never got to live in the place they called home, you will feel it. When you see the effects the radiation had on one's body, one who was sent in to rescue, to salvage, to help, you will definitely feel it.
And why do we need to care about it? Because our past is always our future. Mistakes repeat, and often, and we have the opportunity to learn from them if we choose to. I will never be able to go back in time as much as I'd like to, but I have this beautiful opportunity called TODAY to make the most of it, and document the social history all around me, even if it's just a family gathering on a Saturday morning.
Visuals, be it a realistic movie or photographs of the real thing, are so powerful. Sure, history can be twisted and turned in every which way depending on who's looking at it, but at the same time there are things that will transpire regardless - pain, suffering, joy, humanity. Use this powerful medium and make the most of it. And, meanwhile, if history is not your thing, I definitely recommend these series. You don't need to remember the names, the dates, or the technical facts, just experience feeling it all.
Lead image by Slawojar under Creative Commons.