Rescued Images from Chernobyl Present Life in Ukraine Earlier than the Catastrophe


Ukrainian photographer Maxim Dondyuk has been amassing and archiving pictures and negatives that he has discovered within the Chernobyl exclusion space for the final six years. He has rescued round 15,000 artifacts, which embody movies, pictures, postcards, and letters, however with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he has been compelled to place his Untitled Undertaking from Chernobyl on maintain.

“My first acquaintance with the restricted areas was in 2008,” Dondyuk tells PetaPixel. “I labored again then as a photojournalist. The place [Pripyat, the Ukrainian city ravaged by Chernobyl’s nuclear disaster of 1986] fascinated me once I noticed the homes left in a rush and nature that step by step changed the traces of people.

“However my actual understanding of the Chernobyl exclusion zone began in 2016 once I got here there once more after I witnessed and photographed revolution and conflict in Ukraine. From that very second, I started to see and really feel every little thing in another way there.

“I used to be now not on the lookout for a reportage taking pictures. I used to be concerned about contemplation and visible exploration of the world I photographed. I used to be concerned about distinctive buildings, varied rural homes with distinctive structure, and traces of navy installations on this zone.

“I started to be fascinated extra about landscapes, which I believe can inform rather more about what occurred than the information and occasions themselves. The ruins left by conflict, for my part, present much more horrors concerning the conflict than the bloody occasions that I shot in 2014, being with [the] Ukrainian military on the frontline.”

Frozen in Time After a Nuclear Catastrophe

Chernobyl’s blast was the worst nuclear catastrophe in historical past, each in price and casualties. Dondyuk tells us that within the Chernobyl zone, all almost destroyed homes and monuments have preserved the reminiscence of the previous period.

“That is what attracts me,” explains the Ukrainian photographer. “It takes me again about 30 years. In any case, time stopped right here in 1986, within the period of the Soviet Union. Letters, furnishings, structure, all this was frozen in time. And that is fascinating.

“I’m fiercely against the Soviet Authorities and what the Soviet Union did. However on the similar time, as a person of artwork, visible, architectural, historic monuments and objects are expensive to me.”

Discovered pictures in Chernobyl Zone, Mashevo village. The signature on the again of the photograph: To my expensive grandpa and grandma out of your grandson Vitalii. 22.05.1979

Each recovered picture reminded Dondyuk of the nation the place he was born. He discovered letters and pictures of people that lived in these areas every so often. These prompted him to study as a lot as attainable about what was within the Chernobyl space earlier than the explosion, and to save lots of these visible and historic objects, even when no person bothered to do it for greater than 30 years.

At first, the documentarian thought there could be a number of pictures and possibly some postcards. However the large archive that he started to uncover completely shocked him.

The Soviet authorities evacuated over 100,000 residents in a short time, promising them that they might return in just a few days, and didn’t allow them even to take alongside priceless heirlooms or pictures of household and associates. The official broadcast instructed them to take solely “extremely mandatory issues …throughout this non permanent evacuation”.

“Think about that every one pictures of your loved ones, your grandparents disappeared without end, and also you would not have these reminiscences anymore,” questions Dondyuk. “This [is] what occurred to these folks. They didn’t notice in the course of the second of evacuation that [they] would by no means be again to their properties the place they had been born, or the place they lived their entire life.”

From 2016 Till the Russian Invasion

Dondyuk began engaged on this venture in 2016 and made a number of journeys to the Chernobyl zone within the subsequent two years. The longest and most vital expedition came about final summer time, in 2021. Accompanied by his spouse Irina, he lived for 3 months (video beneath) within the Chernobyl zone, and the couple explored villages each day on foot, overlaying just a few hundred miles.

Every village had at the very least one photographer who recorded occasions and vital happenings, says Donkyuk. When he discovers that home, he’s probably the most glad as he comes up with a treasure trove of pictures that report birthday events, dancing within the woods, and weddings in that group.

The passionate documentarian doesn’t search for probably the most memorable, most vital, or most attention-grabbing photograph as all pictures are “memorable” to him and worthy of safekeeping.

“I by no means considered it as one thing attention-grabbing or vital,” says spouse and studio supervisor Irina. “However final summer time, after we spent a lot time within the zone, every little thing has modified for me. I fell in love with the place, I understood and felt the world, and the world opened as much as me too. It’s incomparable to while you come there as a vacationer and spend like a day or two–that’s nothing.”

“However while you reside there for 3 months, each morning you go to these deserted locations and see wild animals, take heed to sounds of nature, ponder throughout you–there’s nothing else on the planet, simply you and nature,” says Irina. “It’s attention-grabbing to think about how these locations appeared 40-60 years in the past. That is an unforgettable expertise.”

The photographic couple travels loads too, and for the final three years have lived in Asia–Thailand, Vietnam. Final summer time, they got here again to Ukraine to proceed their work on the Chernobyl venture, as they managed to get funding for a three-month expedition.

Discovering the Pictures is Not Straightforward

“This venture is like an archaeological dig,” says Dondyuk, the finalist of the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Images. “As none of those historic objects had been laying clear on a desk or a shelf. All of those had been mendacity below a thick layer of mud and trash in deserted, almost destroyed homes.

“They had been on the ground, below damaged furnishings, in all places, so I needed to rifle by means of heaps of rubbish to seek out all these artifacts. Every little thing was coated with dust and appeared like rubbish.”

Discovered movie in Chernobyl Zone, Rudnya-Veresnya village.
Discovered movie in Chernobyl Zone, Rudnya Veresnya village.

Earlier than Dondyuk, born three years earlier than the nuclear reactor exploded, goes into an deserted home and begins looking out peoples’ reminiscences, he paperwork the house or the encompassing space.

Something and every little thing within the exclusion zone is taken into account to be radioactive trash, and the Ukrainian authorities doesn’t permit its removing. Nevertheless, Dondyuk has managed to hide the photographs at checkpoint searches and “smuggle” them out to assist construct the misplaced archive.

15,000 Artifacts Rescued and Counting

The recovered pictures and negatives are digitized on a scanner. Injury, blemishes, and imperfections should not eliminated and even suppressed in Photoshop. There are only a few coloration movies and pictures. A lot of the pictures are in black and white as nearly no coloration movie was out there in the course of the Soviet Period. It was solely within the Nineteen Nineties that coloration movie began trickling in.

Discovered movie in Chernobyl Zone, Rudnya-Veresnya village.

Dondyuk (b.1983) has explored nearly half of the Chernobyl exclusion zone—each single home in 20 deserted villages has been totally coated. Round 15,000 artifacts, together with movies, pictures, postcards, and letters, have been rescued. Nevertheless, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has put the brakes on his salvage operation.

Discovered movie in Chernobyl Zone, Rudnya-Veresnya village. Within the photograph, persons are dancing within the open air.

“And I hope this isn’t the tip, and I’ll be capable to end this work sooner or later when the conflict is over,” bemoans the Ukrainian photographer. “Yearly, all these artifacts are being destroyed by radiation, nature, and pure disasters, resembling wildfires, throughout which many villages are wiped off the face of the earth.

“That’s the reason this can be very vital for me to seek out and protect the surviving remnants of the historical past of this area whereas we nonetheless have one thing to save lots of. The conflict doesn’t change my critical angle towards this venture. It has not grow to be much less vital. However sadly, it isn’t attainable to proceed my work there except all this insanity ends.”

Discovered movie in Chernobyl Zone, Rudnya-Veresnya village.

At the moment, the couple retains an Instagram account up to date with their finds from the as soon as nuclear wasteland. They’ve additionally exhibited at photograph festivals in Bogota, Colombia, and Hamburg, Germany.

As soon as the conflict ends and a way of normalcy returns to this tortured land, Dondyuk will return to looking for extra pictures and negatives that might lead to a multimedia web site archive, e-book, and exhibitions.

“The thought is to discover each single village, each single home within the Chernobyl exclusion zone,” provides Dondyuk.


In regards to the creator: Phil Mistry is a photographer and instructor based mostly in Atlanta, GA. He began one of many first digital digital camera courses in New York Metropolis at The Worldwide Middle of Images within the 90s. He was the director and instructor for Sony/Well-liked Images journal’s Digital Days Workshops. You may attain him right here.


Picture credit: All pictures provided by Maxim Dondyuk.



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