Years af­ter Chornobyl dis­as­ter, its pho­tog­ra­pher lives in ob­scu­rity in Kyiv

Kyiv Post - - Lifestyle - BY DARYNA SHEVCHENKO

It is hard to take good pho­to­graphs in haz­mat gear, but in 1986 Olek­sandr Salmy­gin had no choice. Af­ter the April 26 nu­clear ex­plo­sion, tak­ing haz­ardous-ma­te­ri­als pro­tec­tive cloth­ing off near Chornobyl meant sure death.

Salmy­gin was one of the pho­tog­ra­phers doc­u­ment­ing the af­ter­math of the world’s big­gest in­dus­trial nu­clear ac­ci­dent at the fourth re­ac­tor of the now-closed Chornobyl nu­clear power plant. His pho­tos de­picted the life of the nearby town of Prypyat, where work­ers lived, as well as peo­ple flee­ing the ex­clu­sion zone at the or­der of the Com­mu­nist Party. The 30 square kilo­me­ter zone has re­mained a wildlife area ever since.

Salmy­gin says that he has taken pic­tures of the Chornobyl power plant since 1971, when its first re­ac­tor was built, and knows the area in­ti­mately. In­ci­den­tally, on the day of the tragedy he ar­rived to Prypyat and shot non-stop for Pravda Sev­era news­pa­per, where he worked at the time. Later he do­nated many of his pho­tos to the “Chron­i­cles of Dif­fi­cult Weeks” doc­u­men­tary project, where he also worked.

When the gov­ern­ment com­mit­tee for deal­ing with the af­ter­math of dis­as­ter opened an in­for­ma­tion unit in Chornobyl, he vol­un­teered to be the staff pho­tog­ra­pher. “I never hes­i­tated. For more than 10 years I was an of­fi­cial photo-chron­i­cler of Chornobyl,” he says with a smile and with­out any trace of re­gret.

As the gray-haired man of 65 leaned on his walk­ing stick, Salmy­gin talked about how Chornobyl had left an im­print on his life.

He says he only started to re­ceive a higher pen­sion given to Chornobyl liquidator­s in 2004, and the clerk in the pen­sion of­fice was very sus­pi­cious about his claims. “Chornobyl liquidator­s don’t live that long,” he quoted her as say­ing.

“Thanks God, I can af­ford the nec­es­sary med­i­ca­tions. But it is get­ting worse and worse with ev­ery year,” he says.

For him, walk­ing is a strug­gle be­cause of im­paired blood cir­cu­la­tion to his legs and feet. He has other blood dis­or­ders that doc­tors say are caused by ra­di­a­tion.

But he re­mains ac­tive and proud of the role he played when he was younger. “I helped tech­ni­cal liquidator­s to plan fur­ther ac­tions, and sci­en­tists to track the mu­ta­tional changes in plants and an­i­mals. I have done the whole re­search,” he says.

The in­for­ma­tion unit Salmy­gin worked for, also took care of the for­eign re­porters that ar­rived to shoot in Prypyat and he ac­com­pa­nied pho­tog­ra­phers. “I shared with them all my se­crets, showed them the best views and spots for shoot­ing,” he says. “We cheated a lot to pass the pic­tures and ma­te­ri­als abroad. We un­der­stood that the world should know about the tragedy.”

In the Soviet Union, where in­for­ma­tion and mis­in­for­ma­tion on Chornobyl was con­trolled tightly by the Com­mu­nist Party, many books, re­ports and sci­en­tific works were censored. One of the photo al­bums that was never re­leased was fully il­lus­trated with Salmy­gin’s pic­tures. “The book was printed in French, Ger­man and English in 1989,” he says. “But our moth­er­land didn’t want it.”

Salmy­gin also claims that his pho­to­graphs il­lus­trate the na­tional Chornobyl mu­seum in Kyiv, but there are few that carry his name.

“We worked to­gether for some time, but he has never given us any neg­a­tives or pho­to­graphs,” says Anna

A sci­en­tist is hold­ing a mu­tant fish from the cooler pond by the Chornobyl nu­clear power plant. In 1992, the fish were used to feed minks at the farm built nearby. (Olek­sandr Salmy­gin)

In 1988, Salmy­gin shot a mum­mi­fied dog in Prypyat, the ghost town where Chornobyl work­ers and their fam­i­lies once lived. (Olek­sandr Salmy­gin)

Olek­sandr Salmy­gin when he worked in Chornobyl in the late 1980s. (Cour­tesy)

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