This photo is from a series by Don Weber. It's called Bastard Eden: Chernobylat Twenty. His book of photos is due out this spring.
I love these photos, and as I look at them I wonder -- why? I think because they lack any kind of voyeurism. Instead of being invited to stare, we are invited to understand. Each subject is their own hero. They've experienced Chernobyl, and they're getting on with it anyway.
Bill Crandall's photo of a young Belarusian girl in dance class is another of this uplifting, humanistic type. Look at her face -- is she thinking about Chernobyl?
It's easy to find a lot of "Chernobyl genre" photos on the Internet. The blogosphere loves the spooky "ghost town" sort epitomized by Elena Filatova and her motorcycle tour of Pripyat. Another type of photos accentuates terrible human suffering. Paul Fusco's sensitive work is, in my opinion, the best of this type. His photo essay brings a tear to my eye no matter how often I watch it.
I've been to these places and met the people featured in these photos, and I can attest with my hand on my heart that it is all true and not exaggerated -- and yet it is only a part of the truth. The most amazing and under reported truth of Chernobyl is that the people who live here really love life. They enjoy life. They can be fun to be around. They want to move on with their lives.
And they do. If we wish to help them, the best thing we can do is give them that extra bit of support that will keep them moving forward and working towards a better time for themselves and their kids. (And isn't this the same thing we want in the USA, when disaster punches us?)
We need a new mental image of people living with Chernobyl. I can't approach the artistry of Don and Bill, but I can snap off a family photo, and I have images of my own of Chernobyl people enjoying their lives. Sasha, shown here in his wheelchair, loves to party and flirt with girls. I've heard he likes the odd beer and is looking forward to the flat we want to build him this spring so that he won't have to move to an adult asylum. Pavel, who lives in an orphanage in Kletsk, is an artist who would not accept my money for his painting. And you should check out this story about Sasha Levkin -- a boy with cerebral palsy who loves to travel and will not be held back.
I'm in this photo with Misha. He started his life in an asylum for mentally ill kids -- probably misunderstood because of his cleft palate and what I like to call his "accent." Most kids never make it out of a place like that. A few years ago, Misha got an operation from American doctors in Minsk. Unfortunately, Misha didn't understand that he wasn't allowed to eat any solids for a week after the operation. After a few days of being hungry, he ate an apple and split his lip back open. It's a tough break, but it hasn't slowed him down too much. In spite of everything, he is making a modest living as a cobbler, and supporting himself and the woman who adopted him as a teen. He sees himself as a pretty handsome guy (and as a result, so do I). He is big fan of Jean Claude Van Damme movies. He is not shy and he makes a few bucks re-selling gifts given to him by Chernobyl Children's Project International volunteers. He never hesitates to ask for more or to pretend that he doesn't remember the previous (re-sold) gifts. He is such a smooth talker, that I question my own memory.
I have scores of stories like this -- hope and persistence are the untold legacy of Chernobyl and I wish it were more widely recognized.
In April 2006, Chernobyl Children's Project International was invited by the United States Congress and the Helsinki Commission to testify about the ongoing effects of Chernobyl. At both of these hearings, United Nations representatives cynically portrayed the "real effect" of Chernobyl as "psychological," as if people who live in these regions are simply weak minded and not brave enough. Shame on them for saying this! It's simply not true. I was heartened, though, to find that the US Congress was not buying any of that talk. I've been told by the Belarusian Embassy here in WashingtonDC that he USA is the #1 source of support to Chernobyl regions in Belarus.