Chernobyl's Half Lives

Radiation checkpoints. Contaminated mushrooms. A quarter century after the meltdown, meet the families who chose to stay.
Chernobyl's Half Lives

Photojournalists often distort the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion. They parachute in, expecting danger and despair, then leave after a few brief days with photos of deformed children and abandoned buildings. This sensationalist approach obscures the more complex stories about how a displaced community adapts and survives. There is suffering, yes. But there's also joy and beauty. Endurance and hope.

Overall, some 350,000 people were displaced by the nuclear accident, and six million continue to live in contaminated areas. For many of the evacuees I interviewed about Chernobyl, losing their homes was as traumatic as the accident itself. In the two years I spent living in the villages I photographed I heard compelling stories about alcoholism, mental illness, unemployment, and crime. Vova likes to go mushroom hunting with his in-laws, despite government warnings against it. Viktor survived cancer treatment only to watch his wife Lydia develop cancer as well. Vasily would die before he would live anywhere else.

I am both an artist and an environmentalist, and I find that the two cross-pollinate in my photography. In this project I examine the human impacts of environmental change. Why do some overcome difficulties while others surrender to them? What does it mean when your home is irreparably changed?

For more on Michael Forster Rothbart's After Chernobyl project, including an audio narration of the photos, check out