Blog posts


Greetings from Almaty

Republic Square in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The morning sun silhouettes statues in the center of the square, including the Monument to Independence topped by a replica of the Golden Man, a celebrated Scythian archaeological relic dating from the 5th century B.C.

After 6 1/2 years away, it's good to be back in Kazakhstan. When you return to a place you once lived, what you notice most is the changes. More traffic. Supermarkets stocked with imported goods, including Raisin Bran and chick peas. Much more Kazakh spoken on the streets; in the past, all we used to hear was Russian. Crazy inflation, especially real estate. Rents have tripled - we're paying $1000 for a 2 room. Lexus SUVs and Hummers. New high-rise apartments and suburban sprawl. Curb cuts and working crosswalks. And did I mention the Raisin Bran?

The statue of the boy on the horse is my baby Jacob's favorite. Since the square is just a few blocks from our house, we walk there often. He points at the horse and barks and wants to rub its legs. Today he was patient enough to sit in his stroller while I did some shots.


smoking sunset

I did some portraits of actress and film student Lena Prokopenko in the Botanical Garden in Kyiv, overlooking the city skyline. The portraits came out fine, but my favorite shots were after we were done, when Lena lit up a smoke and stared out at the setting sun. Can I just say this? Kyiv is a great city.

begging for a change

Two men both named Oleg (surnames withheld) beg for money at an entrance to the Kontraktova metro station in Kyiv. Oleg (above) was a driver but lost his lower leg and his job in a traffic accident 8 years ago. Today he sleeps beside a lake in a Kyiv park. He declined to answer any further questions about his life.

I wanted to convey this scene from Oleg's perspective, people passing by without a second glance. Actually, I think I hate this photo. I can tell you five things wrong with it. But I keep looking back at it.


a moving experience

This week we are uprooting ourselves as we move from Ukraine to Kazakhstan. It's hard to believe that half of our year abroad is over! Amy and Jacob flew to Almaty today, via Istanbul. I fly on Friday, after I try to tie up about 1 million loose ends here.

We will probably be out of touch for a week or two until we get an apartment and figure out internet access.

As I leave Ukraine, I feel I've just now started to understand the multitudinous problems surrounding Chernobyl. I am starting to look into grants so that we can get ourselves back here, hopefully sooner rather than later.


after the nukes

Leonid Budkovsky delivered military mail to the Chernobyl zone for nearly 5 years after the 1986 accident. "In Chernobyl, no one knew how serious it was. We wore no special clothes," he told me. He began to have health problems in 1992 and by 1996 he was confined to a wheelchair. "I am 55 years old and no one needs me," he said. "I can still hold a spoon but I need help to go the bathroom and I have to wear Pampers."
Why am I doing a project on radioactive lives? I have to admit, the more I photograph and interview, the less certain I am about the purpose of my project. I suppose such lack of clarity is unsurprising at this midpoint.

I set out with the idea that there were important stories to be told. Like most social documentarians, I wanted to shed a light in the darkness. Find the people who are suffering and let the world know about them; implicit in this equation is the idea that publicity is good, and that my work might motivate others to help. Another implicit assumption is that an individual story can be used to personalize and illustrate a broader problem.

Leonid with his grandson Slava.
I still believe there are important stories to be told here, but they are not necessarily stories of suffering. Moreover, I am wondering if the simplistic equation of publicity = help is wrongheaded. An good essay by Jim Johnson on the purpose of documentaries has left me wondering about my own purposes.

Soon I'll be in Kazakhstan and I'll learn whether the issues I've found at Chernobyl are also present in the Semeypalatinsk Polygon (nuclear testing zone).


Viktor and Lydia Gaidak

The first time I met Viktor Gaidak, he stood up in the middle of lunch and peeled up his shirt to show me the scar on his chest. Viktor worked for 24 years at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, including 9 years after the 1986 catastrophe. In 2004 he had surgery for colon cancer.

A few weeks later, I went to interview Viktor and his wife Lydia in their apartment. I was thinking about Viktor's scar, one of the few visible signs left by the radiation he experienced as an engineer and liquidator. I was hoping he would be willing to show me the scar again for the camera. He agreed.

I find imagining a photo ahead of time helps me be prepared for it, as long as I'm not too attached to my preconceived image. In this case, the moment made a decent photo, but the composition didn't come together quite as I hoped; I actually prefer the shot I took a few minutes earlier, a very tender moment when Viktor reached over and grabbed Lydia's hand.

"When I was sick with cancer," says Viktor Gaidak, a retired engineer who worked for 24 years at Chernobyl, "we sold our car to pay for the surgery. We sold our TV, we sold our refrigerator, jewelry, everything we could. Now my wife Lydia has cancer and there's nothing left to sell."

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