Blog posts


hazy shade of winter

A few weeks ago, my friend Andy Adams at Flak Photo put out a call for winter photos. I just spent a fascinating hour looking through some nominations that came in. There are remarkable and beautiful photos here.

Two faves:
Bejamin Wirtz Siegel
Chibi Lai

And yet: I'm troubled by the entries as a whole. Over and over and over again, these photographers are portraying winter as snowy, bleak and desolate. Or beautiful and desolate. Or icy and desolate. Snow. Fog. Gray. Trees. Ice. There is a sameness to many entries that soon becomes numbing.

Take the photos of empty, snowy roads. I counted at least 8 of them. Ashley Lebedev's version was my favorite, but you know, it is still another empty snowy road.

Yes, there are notable exceptions that show originality:
- Miniatures by Walter Martin and Paloma Munoz
- Bizarre Christmas trees by William Lamson and Peter Riesett and Ben Huff.
- This shot by Rachel Hulin.
But sadly they are too few and far between.

As a photojournalist, maybe I'm just missing the point. Why create photos that are neither informative nor beautiful nor interesting nor entertaining nor surprising nor emotive? I mean no one offense, but I generally aspire to at least one of these criteria in a photo.

In my work, I seek to create beautiful or troubling images that tell a story. The best photoreportage is both aesthetic and narrative. Take for example, Damon Winter's snowy Central Park photo in today's New York Times.

But back to the monotonous desolation. What if winter, perhaps, means a little bit more?

I mean, where are the kids playing in the snow?

Where are the people dying of exposure?

Where are the people, period? Except for some ethnographic portraits of reindeer herders, the Flak entries are often devoid of life.

And if it's desolation you want, why not go all the way? Where are photos of the long dark nights?

I'm not saying my photos are any better than those entered, but at least I hope they show more variety.

Tomorrow Andy reveals his favorite winter shots on Flak Photo and I'll be eager to see his choices.

(All above photos are mine from Chernobyl.)


award winning

Returning home from Chernobyl. In the winter, it is still dark when Chernobyl workers leave Slavutych and already dark again by the time they arrive home. In total, over 3,800 out of 24,300 Slavutych residents work at the Chernobyl plant.

I never win any photography competitions. It might have something to do with the fact that I never enter them. This year, I decided to enter the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar's competition. Partly because I am looking for a gallery or museum to exhibit my Chernobyl project in 2011.

So I was delighted to win the First Place prize in the Pictorial category for the above photo. I always liked this shot that I made almost a year ago, but it got cut from my Inside Chernobyl exhibit because it was too similar -- visually and thematically -- with another photo we included.

See the other 2009 winners here and here.

So there you go. Now you can add award-winning to the list of compound adjectives that describe me, along with hard-working, clear-sighted and big-nosed.


Moscow exhibit

A wall of dials in Chernobyl's First Block control room once indicated the level of each fuel rod in the reactor core. Although the plant stopped producing electricity in 2000, nuclear fuel remains stored inside three reactor halls.

Some of my recent photographs from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant are in a new exhibit, opening this week in Moscow.

The exhibit, ХОТИМ, ЧТОБЫ ПОМНИЛИ (Wanting Rememberance) includes documentary photos and video installations showing life in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone before and after the 1986 accident. The exhibit has work from 5 Ukrainian photographers and filmmakers, 3 Russians, and me. The show, organized by, coincides with the annual memorial day for liquidators (Chernobyl veterans) on December 14.

Exhibit opening: December 2, 6 pm.

The show runs December 2 to 13 in the выставочном зале «Творчество» (Gallery Creativity), Ulitsa Taganskaya 31/22, between Rimskaya and Marxistskaya Metro stations. (Map here; directions here).

Other events include:
Daily - Screenings of films by Rollan Sergienko
Dec 6, 2 pm - Roundtable discussion by former residents of Pripyat.
Dec 12, 3 pm - Presentation: Status and Future of Chernobyl's "New Safe Confinement".
Dec 13, 12 pm - Presentation: Understanding Radiation A to Z.

Exhibit site:

Download the press release (in Russian) here.


Wisconsin Trails

Today I got the December issue of Wisconsin Trails. They did a nice little article about my Chernobyl exhibit in Madison. I was afraid they would run the photo the size of a stamp, so I was happy to see it runs across a full page.

Revisiting Chernobyl
Madison photographer Michael Forster Rothbart spent a year in Chernobyl on a Fulbright Scholarship to photograph and interview Ukrainians who remain in villages near Chernobyl a generation after the 1986 nuclear power plant accident.

This Forster Rothbart photo (above) shows Leonid Budkovskiy with his grandson Slava. When the Chernobyl plant exploded, Budkovskiy was a mailman in Ivankiv. For four years, he was reassigned to deliver top-secret mail from Ivankiv to the military headquarters in Chernobyl. One after another, the drivers he worked with refused to drive to Chernobyl. He continued, however, out of a sense of duty. His legs slowly stopped working and by 1996 he was confined to a wheelchair. Currently, he spends most days sitting on his back stoop, overlooking the vegetable garden, and getting assistance from his wife and grandson.

"Most visitors think Chernobyl is a place of danger and despair, and so this is what they photograph. For me, however, Chernobyl tells a story about endurance and hope," says Forster Rothbart. "I created this exhibit because I want the world to know what I know: the people of Chernobyl are not victims, mutants and orphans. They are simply people living their lives, with their own joys and sorrows, hopes and fears. Like you. Like me."

Forster Rothbart's next exhibit, Inside Chernobyl, is currently showing in the Ukraine and will open in Washington, D.C. in April with additional showings planned for Milwaukee and Chicago. After Chernobyl can be seen online at


Hartwick College panorama

Hartwick College sits on a hilltop overlooking the Susquehanna river valley in upstate New York. This panorama was created by digitally compositing 6 consecutive vertical photographs. (Click on the photo to see it larger).

My wife Amy now works in Golisano Hall, the building with the white tower at right.



Last week I had another assignment from NPR's This American Life. To create an illustration for this week's episode: Infidelity — stories of cheating, cheaters and the cheated.

I immediately recalled a book of cartoons my parents had when I was growing up: Sam, the Ceiling Needs Painting, by Woody Gelman. The cover gives a good idea of the content:Great way to imply sex with virtually no bare skin. So I set out to find six feet willing to pose for a photo. (See the final shot with all six feet here.)

This week's photo contest:

Free 5 x 7 print of this photo to the first person who correctly identifies the brand of jeans worn in this photo. Send your guesses to:

Deadline: Nov. 8, 2009.

[UPDATE 11/9:]
The correct answer: the jeans were Wranglers.
After making my first contests too hard I guess I made this one too easy -- almost everyone who entered got it right.

The winners are:
1: Jim Gill of Madison, WI was the first to answer correctly. HOWEVER
2: Sara Lynn Platt of Florence, KY was the first one to answer correctly AND follow the submission rules.

Both will get photos.


red maple leaves

Red maple leaves shine through the ripples at the edge of Wilber Lake, Otsego County, New York, on a sunny fall day.
Sometimes it's nice to just get out and make some pretty pictures.


drugs for This American Life

Last week I shot another assignment for NPR's This American Life. They asked me to come up with an illustration for this week's episode — Someone Else’s Money: a look inside the health insurance industry. Aired this past weekend.

After pondering it for a few days, I was hit with a stroke of brilliance (or lunacy) one night. I got up at midnight to fashion this stretcher out of a dollar bill and q-tips.

Last week's photo contest got such great responses I'll try it again.

Free 5 x 7 print of this photo to the first person who can correctly identify the secret ingredient I used to attach the stretcher to the pill bottles. Send your guesses to:


Atomic Lake

Lake Balapan was created when an underground nuclear test in Kazakhstan blew the top off of a mountain.
Sixty years ago, the Soviet Union began testing nuclear bombs on the steppe in northern Kazakhstan. In the Semipalatinsk Polygon, researchers detonated nearly 460 nuclear explosions above and below ground over a 40-year period, ending in 1989.

Today, October 19, 2009, marks the twentieth anniversary of Kazakhstan’s nuclear testing moratorium, the result of a rare Soviet grassroots environmental campaign. Kazakhstan once had the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal. It has since become the first country to become nuclear-free.

Lake Balapan, also known as Atomic Lake, was created when an underground nuclear test blew the top off of a mountain. The resulting crater filled with water and is one of the most radioactive sites within the 6,950-square-mile Polygon. Recently, local shepherds have watered their sheep at the lake, not believing scientific warnings about the dangers of doing so.

Nurlan Khamiev is the director of the Shorskoye Mine, one of two mines still operating within the contaminated Polygon.

See another Polygon photo here.


drowning for This American Life

I'm a photojournalist. I don't get into the studio that often. So it was a fun change of pace last week to shoot this photo for NPR's This American Life. I was asked to create photos to illustrate the theme of this week's show, More is Less: the rising costs of health care.

Wait, you say, isn't TAL a radio show? Yes, but nowadays even radio shows need good photos.

Free 5 x 7 print of this photo to the first person who can correctly identify either the doll or one of the pills used in this photo. Send your guesses to:


homecoming in a new home

With all my years of experience as a staff photographer for the University of Wisconsin, I decided I should start seeking new clients at the many colleges and universities here in New York.

So last weekend I photographed Homecoming at Hartwick College, just across the valley from our new home.

The Hartwick College football team runs out on the field at the start of their homecoming game against Ithaca College.

Alumnae Judy Lindberg and Kathleen Carver-Cheney and many other alums covered the hillside above Wright stadium.

No matter how many times I photograph cheerleaders, I always get a kick out of them. It was a lovely day, even though Hartwick lost to Ithaca 24-20.


Capital Times article

The Cap Times today has a nice little article about my new Chernobyl exhibit.

Find it here.


radio show on WORT

I'll be doing a one-hour interview about Chernobyl and my After Chernobyl exhibit on A Public Affair, the noontime talk show on WORT (89.9 FM in Madison). Those of you far from Madison can stream the show here:

That's Wed. Sept. 16, 12-1 pm CST, or 1-2 pm for you east coasters.

If you missed the interview, catch it here. (The show starts 5:40 into the hour, after the news.)



New Madison photo exhibit

My new Chernobyl photo exhibit is up in Madison, Wisconsin! A big thanks to Rob, Dick and Jon who hung the exhibit! Come check it out.

Madison Municipal Building ARTspace gallery
215 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd, 1st floor
September 3 to October 30, 2009
Hours: Mon-Fri 7-5, Sat 8-12
(Eves and weekends you can still get in - enter the building via the Doty St. entrance.)

After Chernobyl: photo exhibit

Press Release - September 4, 2009 - FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

After Chernobyl: Photo Exhibit by Michael Forster Rothbart

If you lived near Chernobyl, would you stay?

Madison photographer Michael Forster Rothbart has just returned from a year in Chernobyl. He received a U.S. Fulbright Scholarship to photograph and interview Ukrainians who remain in villages near Chernobyl a generation after the 1986 accident.

After Chernobyl, an exhibit of Forster Rothbart’s documentary photographs, will be displayed for two months...

Read full press release.
Download the press release.


Polygon Nuke Test Site

Shepherd Vlodya Lionchev works on a sheep ranch in Kazakhstan at the edge of the Semipalatinsk Polygon, the Soviet-era nuclear weapons testing site.
Sixty years ago today, the Soviet Union began testing nuclear bombs on the steppe in northern Kazakhstan. Researchers detonated nearly 460 nuclear explosions above and below ground over a 40 year period, ending in 1989. The testing range was officially closed 18 years ago today, August 29, 1991.

The ranch where Lionchev works is across a small valley from Lake Balapan, also known as Atomic Lake, created when a nuclear test blew the top off of a mountain. The resulting crater filled with water and is one of the most radioactive sites within the Polygon. Recently, local shepherds have watered their sheep at the lake, not believing scientific warnings about the dangers of doing so.

I first visited the Polygon nine years ago (hard to believe!) to shoot a story for AP. I was fascinated and long wanted to return. This week I'm finishing editing a story I shot there about the people who live in and around the Polygon.


Flying baby!

Andrei Balta throws his fifteen-month-old son Vanya in the air during a summer evening in Slavutych, Ukraine. Every evening, parents with babies and toddlers gather in the central square of Slavutych to socialize. Andrei and his wife Anna both work at the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, as do over 3,800 other residents of Slavutych.
During an intense week photographing inside the Chernobyl power plant, it was a pleasure to relax in the evening by photographing some parents playing with their kids. Andrei and Vanya were very impressive, with little Vanya doing flips and aerial somersaults.


Pripyat pano redux

My friend Dave Menninger suggested this version of yesterday's image. Something to think about...


abandoned apartment, Pripyat

Living room in an abandoned apartment in Pripyat, 2 km from Chernobyl. Click on photo for larger version.
The last time I was in Pripyat, the city next to Chernobyl, I tried an experiment. I've been looking for a way to photograph abandoned apartments. They have very small rooms and are often fairly empty. This living room had more in it than most do.

Does this four-tych approach work? I am still undecided. In this project I've shot a number of 360 degree panoramas, but it didn't seem like that would work well here. Instead, I put my wide-angle lens at 17mm and stood back to each wall and shot the whole room.

This week I am going back to photograph the former apartments of people I've interviewed and photographed. Should be interesting.


making hay

while the sun shines.

Petro Konovalenko, head of the village council for Sukachi, Ukraine, helps neighbors load hay into their barn. Nearly half the population of Sukachi was relocated here from the village of Ladizhichi after the Chernobyl accident.

Man was I ever dirty after this shoot.


Old family photos

Leonid Budkovskiy and a friend celebrate a successful hunting trip near Chernobyl, sometime in the 1970s. (Photo courtesy Budkovskiy family.)

No, this is not my photo.

As part of my Inside Chernobyl documentary project, I have started going through old photo albums and drawers of old photos with the 15 main families I've been following. We're picking some favorite photos and I am getting them scanned.

I can get a lot more depth of family history by integrating my new pictures with old family shots. I still need to figure out how it will all fit together, but in the meantime it is fun hearing family stories triggered by old snapshots.

I especially liked this hunting photo because Leonid's legs stopped working after his five years at Chernobyl. He has been in a wheelchair since 1996. See my more recent portraits of Leonid here.


Where's the website?

If you tried to visit my website lately, you've discovered that it is not there.

Gone. Vanished. Up in a cloud of pixels.

Here is what went wrong: Northwest merged with Delta. Really. That's why.

See: no NW = no more NW Visa card = new account number = failed automated billing = big electronic burp = unpaid bill = warning sent to old address = this morning, they deleted my entire website.

Even though I plunked down my electronic 59 bucks before I rushed off to the next thing (packing my bags for heart surgery), it didn't help.

Of course, they could undelete it, but I am not willing to pay their ransom. My homepage will forward here to my blog until I return to the U.S. and have time to deal with it.


open hearts

Latafit and Valekh Sulemanov try to hold back tears as they watch their daughter Parvana, age 18 months, get wheeled away for heart surgery.

I just finished my first day photographing open heart surgeries in Kharkiv for Chernobyl Children's Project International. I'll be back in the hospital for another 12 hour shift tomorrow.

I am also recording audio as I go —— both background hospital sounds and interviews —— so we can later put together a slideshow conveying this experience.

Both the ICU and the Operating Room are tough places to photograph, in different ways, emotionally and logistically. I'm working with a fabulous and dedicated team of volunteer doctors and nurses (3 surgeries back to back? in a baking hot operating room? that's dedication!). The team brought here by the International Children's Heart Foundation, will do 20+ operations in a typical 2 week mission.

Now a few hours sleep before we go do it all again.


Exhibit opening in Slavutych

Press Release - June 2, 2009 - FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Inside Chernobyl: life goes on
Photography Exhibition

If you worked at Chernobyl, would you stay there?

A new photography exhibition reveals the inside of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant today, focusing on the everyday lives of nine people who still work there. Created by an American photographer and Fulbright Scholar, this exhibition honors all those who work inside the Chernobyl plant, and the city of Slavutych where they live.

Read the full press release.


Congratulations Irina and Bas!

Bas Wels and Irina Leonenko got married in a lovely ceremony at Saint Alexander Catholic church in Kyiv. I felt privileged to attend and take photos, my way of thanking Irina for all her time and invaluable help preparing my exhibit last month.



media coverage of the exhibit

There was a gratifying burst of media coverage during the first week of my Inside Chernobyl exhibit in Kyiv. Here are some of my favorite stories:

Some other coverage:


installing my exhibit

This morning we set up my Inside Chernobyl exhibit in Shevchenko Park, in downtown Kyiv. You can see installation photos on Linda Norris's uncatalogued museum blog. Then I had a brief lull to be nervous before our very nice opening ceremony.

I am a very grateful to everyone who made this exhibit possible. I was honored to have such a group of distinguished speakers at the event.

The best part of today, for me, was seeing audience reactions. It's been a laborious 4 months to bring this exhibit from conception to completion. Today it felt worthwhile, as I watched so many passersby stop and really examine the exhibit.

After a brief pause to relax, I will post photos of the exhibit and more details.


Arriving at Chernobyl

Every weekday morning, about 3,800 Chernobyl plant workers arrive at the plant via the Semikhody train station. One former worker called the train platform "the daily fashion show." Immediately afterwards, employees enter giant locker rooms and change into their work clothes.

I love the matching red-dyed hair of these women.

In every exhibit, some favorite photos get cut. I am posting a few this week and explaining why you won't see them in the exhibit.

One section of the exhibit shows an overview of a typical day at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. This photo got cut to make room for a more essential photo at the train station, showing workers passing through the final radiation checkpoint of the day.


Inside Chernobyl

Inside Chernobyl: life goes on

My photo exhibit opens in 2 weeks. Last week, I delivered all material to the designer to lay it out. Now I can take a deep breath before I dive back into preparations.

Inevitably, in every exhibit, some favorite photos get cut because they don't support the story of the overall exhibit or are redundant with other photos.

This week I will post a few of my favorite images that did not make it into the show.

Lira Barbash is sixteen months old and entranced by feeding pigeons. She throws sunflower seeds to the birds while her mom shops in the Moscovskiy Kvartal open-air bazaar in Slavutych.

This is a lovely image, but it does not tell enough of the story of Slavutych, the city that is home to the Chernobyl plant workers. So the photo had to go, alas.


Inside Chernobyl downloads

Inside Chernobyl: life goes on
Чорнобиль зсередини: життя продовжується

Photography exhibit in Shevchenko Park, Kyiv
April 24 - May 8, 2009

The photographs here are available free for media use, for articles related to the Inside Chernobyl exhibit. For any other commercial or editorial uses, contact Michael Forster Rothbart at

All published photographs should be accompanied by a credit:
Photo by Michael Forster Rothbart.

Click on any photo to get a larger version.

Caption: In Chernobyl's liquid radioactive waste treatment facility, wastewater will be purified and the remaining radioactive sediment will be safely stored in barrels. Serhiy Bokov and his colleagues are readying this new facility for operation.
Підпис: На заводі, де переробляються рідкі радіоактивні відходи, стічні води очищаються, а радіоактивний осад буде надійно зберігатись у цистернах. Сергій Боков і його колеги готують цей новий завод до експлуатації.

Caption: Morning rush hour in the H.I.R.C. department: workers undergo internal radiation control before starting their shift on the New Safe Confinement construction site near the 4th Block “Shelter Object.”
Підпис: Ранкова година пік у відділі ЦРБ: працівники проходять внутрішній радіаційний контроль перед тим, як заступити на роботу на промисловій площадці об’єкта «Укриття»

Caption: At the Chernobyl plant, more than 3,800 employees still come to work every day. Here, workers check their hands and feet for radioactive contamination one last time at the end of the day, before boarding the train home.
Підпис: На Чорнобильську атомну станцію щодня приходить на роботу більше 3800 працівників. Остання перевірка рук і ніг на радіоактивне забруднення наприкінці робочого дня, перед посадкою на електричку.

Caption: Morning with the Evteev family. Tanya Evteeva checks her work schedule while her family finishes breakfast.
Підпис: Ранок в домі Євтєєвих. Таня перевіряє розклад роботи, поки сім'я закінчує снідати.

Caption: In Slavutych, Lira Barbash is sixteen months old and entranced by feeding pigeons.
Підпис: В місті Славутич, Лірі Барбаш шістнадцять місяців і вона із захопленням годує голубів.


liquid radioactive waste

I've been too busy shooting to blog. I shot over 12,000 photos in the first 2 months of 2009. For me, that's a lot.

I've returned from a few weeks photographing at the Chernobyl plant and Slavutich, where the Chernobyl workers live. So now it is time to pay the price: this week I'm editing photos 10 hours a day.

Sergii Bokov lives in Slavutich, Ukraine, and commutes to his job at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. He is an engineer in the liquid radioactive waste treatment facility. In total, about 3,800 out of 24,300 Slavutich residents work at the Chernobyl plant.
Liquid radioactive waste? I never thought about it before either. But what do you do when you have a large site that is radioactive? When you clean the floors, where do you dump the water? When you flush the toilet? Chernobyl NPP now has separate pipe systems for the dirty zones, and all the water, with low levels of radioactive particles in it, has to be treated separately.


Control room panorama

Last time I wrote a long post about visiting Chernobyl's Control Room 4, the epicenter of the disaster. It is dark and skeletal. In contrast, here is Control Room 1.

Oleg Ryazanov is a Control Room Shift Supervisor in the Chernobyl 1st Block. His job is to sit in an empty room watching inactive machinery and make sure nothing happens. (Click photo to see larger).
Unlike the destroyed 4th Block, the other 3 reactors at Chernobyl are still functional. Although they have been shut down since 2000, they could be restarted at any time. (Theoretically. Only theoretically. If politics and world opinion did not exist.)

I am now working on a series of panoramic portraits of Chernobyl employees en milieu. The photos are equally about the people and the places they inhabit. Daily lives in this unique environment. This is Oleg Ryazanov, Chernobyl control room shift supervisor.

If the reactor was active, Oleg would oversee three other operators. As it is, he sits in an empty room and does, essentially, nothing. But it is a very important nothing, as there is still nuclear fuel in temporary storage in the reactor hall. As long as the fuel remains inside, Oleg and his peers will continue to sit in their seats all day and all night.

How long will the fuel remain? A very good question. I can tell you only this: many others have wondered the same thing.

Oleg did not work at Chernobyl at the time of the accident. He came later, "because the package on offer was good - more pay and a bigger apartment."

"I earn about 4,000 hryvnia per month [about US$500], which is quite high on the power station's pay scale. In Ukraine it is a very good salary. My job is to keep the reactor under control, to keep the water cooling system running and to monitor the spent fuel tanks."

"It's depressing. Soon my job will cease to exist. I can only do the job I was trained to do for another two years here... I don't rule out going to work abroad. People have gone from here to China and Iran. I would not go to Iran, but China is a possibility."
(Oleg interviewed by Stephen Mulvey/BBC).


Chernobyl's heart of darkness

It's a curious feeling to stand at the epicenter of a disaster. On April 26, 1986 in the middle of the night, in Control Room 4 of Chernobyl, things went wrong during a test. Very wrong. The rest is, as they say, history. Plenty of books have been written and decades of debate about what exactly went wrong and who was to blame.

But I just want to tell you about the experience of actually standing in the half-dark, half-destroyed room, dosimeters on, taking it all in.

View of Chernobyl's dark Fourth Block Control Room, where the 1986 accident began. This panorama was created by stitching together 12 photographs. (Click to see larger).
First comes anticipation. It took me two years of working on this Chernobyl documentary to get here. We got our security clearances, crossed the border twice today, and passed five different checkpoints. We put on our protective clothing. I work for an hour photographing in Control Room 1. All the time we are getting closer to Ukraine's ground zero and I wonder what will we see.

Then comes fear. Some people think I am crazy to go inside Chernobyl, but the working areas have been cleaned regularly for two decades and are no longer dangerous. So my first flicker of fear came only when we paused outside Control Room 4 to pull rubber slippers over our protective boots. How puny we are, I thought, in the face of such a monumental disaster. We are entering the enormous Sarcophagus, the shell constructed to contain the radiation. Here or anywhere, I wonder, why do we live our lives believing that we are safe from harm?

Next comes surprise. We enter. It is dark. One security light high above casts one small pool of light. My first thought is that it doesn't look real. It looks like a stage set, the house dark. Or a movie set. The bridge from Star Trek. Control Room 4 once looked similar to Control Room 1, but no longer. The first block control room is still alive: it has lights, workers, ceiling panels, a pen holder on a desk, a fridge for lunch food, office chairs with wheels. Everything has been stripped from the Fourth Block.

A central panel of the Fourth Block controls.
On the other hand, the room is not burned out. Somehow, I expected charred concrete and twisted metal. There is plenty of such debris at Chernobyl, but not here. The control room was protected by a 3-meter reinforced concrete wall. Even though there was an enormous explosion in the reactor, just 5 meters north and 15 meters below us, this room was spared. The nearby reactor hall and turbine hall remain too radioactive and unmapped to allow any visitors inside.

I'm also surpised that the control room, which I always imagined as an isolated place, now serves as a hallway for workers. The original corridor, on the other side of the reinforced wall, is too contaminated for use.

Next, a moment of panic. My rubber slipper falls off, and I suddenly feel naked. I envision the invisible radiation drilling holes through my foot. Of course, to my escorts, it is a minor matter. They tell me to simply pull it back on, reminding me to put on my gloves first. Later, they tape my boot on, mostly, I think, just to make me feel better.

Next comes a sense of solemn awe. Hundreds of thousands of lives were changed forever because of what happened in this room. More than that, the very course of world history changed. The Cold War ended because of Chernobyl. Even the Soviet Union itself ended because of Chernobyl: after the accident, people lost faith in their government, protests began, and the whole system crumbled. Like 9/11, Chernobyl marked the end of an era. Afterwards, nothing looked the same.

We look at the hole in the reactor control panel where the 3 big red emergency buttons used to be. (Yes, they really were red. But most of the buttons and controls were long since stripped during decontamination). Here, on 4/26/86 during the 41 seconds between 1:23:04 AM and 1:23:45 AM, an operator desperately hit these buttons to insert all emergency shutdown rods back into the reactor. But it was too late.

Finally comes anxiety. Time is passing quickly and I have work to do. This is a very dark and very large room, and I brought just one off-camera flash to light it, since I was advised to carry as little as possible into the dirty zone. I jump into working, leveling my plastic-wrapped tripod and directing my voice-activated light stand (AKA Sergii), and there is no longer room in my head for thinking about the implications of this space.

After we emerge, I study a model of the plant. I can't quite believe we were inside the belly of the beast. And I am also amazed how low our radiation dose was. We received just 0.007 milliSieverts of radiation during our hours inside, about what you'd get on two hours of a transatlantic flight.

Chernobyl has gotten inside my head. Although my photography mostly focuses on people, it is important to include the epicenter from which all other effects radiate. I'm grateful to have this opportunity.

During my interviews, I've realized that what Chernobyl means to people says more about them than about the disaster. Some discount it entirely. Some mourn for a paradise lost. Some fear it. Some blame it. For me, when I started, Chernobyl was a lingering danger that needed to be uncovered. And now? I'll get back to you on that.


More inauguration party photos

Each morning when I awake, I still find it hard to believe that Barack Obama is really our President. I started reading his autobiography, Dreams from My Father; I find it inspiring that we now have a leader who is a good writer, felt an early calling to do public service, and lived abroad as a child.

     By popular request, here are two dozen photos from the Kyiv Inaugural Ball. Feel free to download these photos for personal use. For other purposes, contact me.

To get high-resolution copies of these photos, email the event organizers, Democrats Abroad in Ukraine. Eventually, they will also put photos on their website.

Click on each thumbnail to see a larger version. Enjoy!

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