Rescued Photos from Chernobyl Show Life in Ukraine Before the Disaster


Ukrainian photographer Maxim Dondyuk has been gathering and archiving pictures and negatives that he has discovered in the Chernobyl exclusion space for the final six years. He has rescued round 15,000 artifacts, which embrace movies, pictures, postcards, and letters, however with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he has been pressured to place his Untitled Project 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 after I noticed the homes left in a rush and nature that step by step changed the traces of people.

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

“I used to be not searching for a reportage capturing. I used to be in contemplation and visible exploration of the space I photographed. I used to be in distinctive buildings, varied rural homes with distinctive structure, and traces of navy installations in this zone.

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

Frozen in Time After a Nuclear Disaster

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

“This is what attracts me,” explains the Ukrainian photographer. “It takes me again about 30 years. After all, time stopped right here in 1986, in 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 Government and what the Soviet Union did. But at the similar time, as a person of artwork, visible, architectural, historic monuments and objects are pricey to me.”

Found pictures in Chernobyl Zone, Mashevo village. The signature on the again of the picture: To my pricey grandpa and grandma from your grandson Vitalii. 22.05.1979

Every recovered picture reminded Dondyuk of the nation the place he was born. He discovered letters and pictures of people that lived in these areas from time to time. These prompted him to be taught as a lot as doable about what was in the Chernobyl space earlier than the explosion, and to avoid wasting these visible and historic objects, even when no person bothered to do it for greater than 30 years.

In the starting, the documentarian thought there could be a number of pictures and possibly some postcards. But the big archive that he started to uncover completely stunned him.

The Soviet authorities evacuated over 100,000 residents in a short time, promising them that they’d return in a couple of 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 obligatory issues …throughout this momentary evacuation”.

“Imagine that each one pictures of your loved ones, your grandparents disappeared endlessly, and also you do not need these reminiscences anymore,” questions Dondyuk. “This [is] what occurred to these folks. They didn’t notice throughout the second of evacuation that [they] would by no means be again to their properties the place they have been born, or the place they lived their entire life.”

From 2016 Until the Russian Invasion

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

Each village had at the very least one photographer who recorded occasions and essential happenings, says Donkyuk. When he discovers that home, he’s the most happy as he comes up with a treasure trove of photos that report birthday events, dancing in the woods, and weddings in that neighborhood.

The passionate documentarian doesn’t search for the most memorable, most essential, or most fascinating picture as all pictures are “memorable” to him and worthy of safekeeping.

“I by no means considered it as one thing fascinating or essential,” says spouse and studio supervisor Irina. “But final summer season, after we spent a lot time in the zone, all the things has modified for me. I fell in love with the place, I understood and felt the space, and the space opened as much as me too. It is incomparable to whenever you come there as a vacationer and spend like a day or two–that’s nothing.”

“But whenever 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 may be nothing else in the world, simply you and nature,” says Irina. “It is fascinating to think about how these locations seemed 40-60 years in the past. This is an unforgettable expertise.”

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

Finding the Images is Not Easy

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

“They have been on the flooring, below damaged furnishings, in every single place, so I needed to rifle by means of heaps of rubbish to seek out all these artifacts. Everything was coated with grime and seemed like rubbish.”

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

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

Anything and all the things in the exclusion zone is taken into account to be radioactive trash, and the Ukrainian authorities doesn’t permit its elimination. However, Dondyuk has managed to hide the photos 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. Damage, blemishes, and imperfections will not be eliminated and even suppressed in Photoshop. There are only a few shade movies and pictures. Most of the photos are in black and white as nearly no shade movie was accessible throughout the Soviet Era. It was solely in the Nineteen Nineties that shade movie began trickling in.

Found 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 fully coated. Around 15,000 artifacts, together with movies, pictures, postcards, and letters, have been rescued. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has put the brakes on his salvage operation.

Found movie in Chernobyl Zone, Rudnya-Veresnya village. In the picture, persons are dancing in the open air.

“And I hope this isn’t the finish, and I’ll have the ability to end this work in the future when the battle is over,” bemoans the Ukrainian photographer. “Every yr, all these artifacts are being destroyed by radiation, nature, and pure disasters, reminiscent of wildfires, throughout which many villages are wiped off the face of the earth.

“That is why this can be very essential for me to seek out and protect the surviving remnants of the historical past of this area whereas we nonetheless have one thing to avoid wasting. The battle doesn’t change my severe perspective towards this mission. It has not develop into much less essential. But sadly, it isn’t doable to proceed my work there until all this insanity ends.”

Found movie in Chernobyl Zone, Rudnya-Veresnya village.

Currently, the couple retains an Instagram account up to date with their finds from the as soon as nuclear wasteland. They have additionally exhibited at picture festivals in Bogota, Colombia, and Hamburg, Germany.

Once the battle ends and a way of normalcy returns to this tortured land, Dondyuk will return to looking for extra pictures and negatives that might outcome in a multimedia web site archive, guide, and exhibitions.

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


About the writer: Phil Mistry is a photographer and trainer primarily based in Atlanta, GA. He began one among the first digital digital camera lessons in New York City at The International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was the director and trainer for Sony/Popular Photography journal’s Digital Days Workshops. You can attain him right here.


Image credit: All pictures equipped by Maxim Dondyuk.




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