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Ukrainian artist preserves family photos left behind after Chernobyl nuclear disaster

Found film in Chernobyl Zone, Rudnya-Veresnya village. (Courtesy)
Found film in Chernobyl Zone, Rudnya-Veresnya village. (Courtesy)

Ukraine makes headlines day after day as the Russian invasion presses into its third month.

But 36 years ago, the world watched a different disaster unfold north of Kyiv: The Chernobyl reactor meltdown.

At least 31 people died in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear accident, and many more fell seriously ill after a plume of radiation spread across parts of the Soviet Union and Western Europe.

The day after the disaster, Soviet officials evacuated the area. No residents returned. The area became a 1,000 square mile exclusion zone – where Ukrainian photographer and artist Maxim Dondyuk ventured years later.

In 2014, Dondyuk was photographing the Russian-backed separatist insurgency in Eastern Ukraine.

“I just decided I need to go to some quiet place, some place without any people,” he says.

So he went to Chernobyl, where he found abandoned homes still full of mementos from everyday life. Wandering the ruins, he discovered untouched film negatives, pictures, and letters that he began to collect.

“For me, it looks like the Chernobyl area just [chose] me, or just opened [for] me this portal for [collecting] pictures,” he says.

Walking through the villages in the exclusion zone, Dondyuk got a glimpse of what he calls the “apocalypse.”

“You can see how can be our planet after us,” he says. “It’s empty.”

On that first visit, he found only a few letters and pictures. Since then, he has found some 15,000 paper artifacts.

Last year, he and his wife lived in Chernobyl for three months. He would wake up at 6 a.m., make his way to a particular village and walk through every house. Through his travels, he created what he calls a “map” of the area.

Each village had one or two photographers who would capture life in the village, he says. Those pieces of art allow him a glimpse back into life before the nuclear accident.

“For me it’s very interesting,” he says. “It’s like [a] time machine for me. It’s unbelievable.”

Radiation and time, however, have destroyed some pictures down to abstraction.

“You can see time inside of this picture,” he says.

Dondyuk hopes that his work preserves the family artifacts for future generations — and sometimes wonders why no institute or museum stepped in to gather the memories.

“I think I need to keep it safe for our children,” he says. “Imagine children cannot see how looks [their] grandma or grandpa, because the Soviet Union government said, ‘You can take only passport.’ … They couldn’t take any pictures or film.”

One day, he says, he hopes to put the items into an online archive so that families can find letters and pictures.

“It’s important to remember how our mistake destroyed the area,” he says.

Lynn Menegon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtFrancesca Paris adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.