‘Chernobyl’ has become a synonym for contemporary catastrophe, a password that teases environmental anxieties and aesthetic fantasies. Last Thursday, April 26 marked the 25th anniversary of the nuclear disaster which, coupled with the ongoing Fukushima tragedy, revived the painful memory of the tragic accident. But while the memory of the incident may have faded for most by now, the landscape of Chernobyl and the surrounding Ukrainian towns is still haunted by the invisible, imperceptible menace born on that fateful day in 1986—the radioactive ghost.
French photojournalists Guillaume Heraut and Bruno Masi spent the past few years exploring the central exclusion zone, a perimeter of 450km that surrounds reactor 4. They created a new journalistic output from the reporting they did there, a hybrid transmedia initiative linking three mediums: a webdocumentary produced by French newspaper lemonde.fr, a multimedia installation presented at the Gaité Lyrique until the 10th of May and a book of photography.
We asked them what type of inhabitants, landscapes, and nightmares filled the ZONE, what it hides, and what it reveals.
The Creators Project: Chernobyl, both as an accident and as a territory has an ambiguous status. The name itself belongs to an imaginary post nuclear cultural ground that unites history and fiction. How does one broach this ambiguity as a journalist?
Guillaume Herbaut: We’ve been broaching the subject with our work for a long time. We had already broached the idea of pushing the documentary to limits of fiction on a piece of work we did in 2004 in Albania, which opened up an outlet for an exhibition putting text and image on the same level. We were always interested in the limits of documentary. The work on image consisted of creating a disturbance, finding a way to break out of traditional journalism.
Bruno Masi: I was eleven at the time of the accident and have always had this cultural reference in the background, to the point where Chernobyl has nearly become a common noun. The accident links works from the world of cinema, literature, a whole vein of anticipation, Carpenter’s films for example, Tarkovsky’s, a whole wave of science-ficiton that really developed though this aesthetic pattern at the end of the 1970s. We wanted to create a confrontation between reality and this cultural ground. Our work consisted of finding a way of rubbing out any asperity/ruggedness, of everything that contributes to the picturesque particularities of the area, the lovely image of a babushka with her little scarf.
Guillaume Herbaut: When we returned to Chernobyl in 2009, we started off on a memorial project, for its 25th anniversary. So, a return to Pripyat, a focus on the liquidators, etc… Then we quickly realised that we were just doing what every other journalist had already done, which wasn’t interesting to us, but we realized there was a parallel life over there. We realized that Chernobyl had become a decorative shell and that within it we could tell stories.
The ZONE represents the forbidden zone that encircles the perimeter around the power plant, but it’s also the strange zone from Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Stalker. The film represents a constant, but invisible, menace. It’s the same issue with Chernobyl.
Guillaume Herbaut: Yes, the zone’s theme rapidly imposed itself through evoking a number of different realities. The zone is at once the geographic zone, with a perimeter of 450km around reactor 4, and it’s also the zone as understood and cited in different works, and finally, it’s a state of mind. [It’s] an area marked by an unseen menace that can’t be felt nor touched. We evolve in an environment where our perception of what reality is, is modified considerably by things which we cannot perceive. The installation, built on a software that randomly projects images or videos from the zone on the four walls of a closed box incarnates the will to represent the radioactivity pattern that has been dropped off in a perfectly accidental and not at all uniform way onto the land.
Is it also a means of overcoming the death of the image in Chernobyl?
Guillaume Herbaut: There are a few ways of representing the invisible through the image. I’ve been asking myself this question for 10 years in visiting these locations 15 or 16 years after the catastrophe. The idea of the invisible is not only Chernobyl, but also Birkenau and Nagasaki. The idea behind the installation is to place people in a confined space for 10 minutes, 30 minutes or four hours. And when they leave it, they’ll have to do something with it.
Inside the installation, we notice a cohabitation between the frozen ruins and pockets of life. In the documentary, we also notice that a few generations live side by side within the zone. How does this cohabitation work?
Guillaume Herbaut: How does it work? It doesn’t work.
How so? There isn’t any transmission? Any memorial work done there?
Guillaume Herbaut: No. For me, Chernobyl, is really the image of the end of civilisation. We are told that nature reclaims her rights. First off, she takes them back a little haphazardly. But nature taking back her rights is most of all nature gnawing on human presence.
Bruno Masi: We’re immersed in a myth whereby nature is all wonderful and lovely. I remember a city entirely eaten away by nature, in ruins, overtaken by birds. I felt as if I was in a jungle. And I know that I didn’t used to be bothered by birdsong, but since then I don’t hear them the same way. It makes me anxious. The idea that nature is wonderful and that it’s great when she reclaims her rights is in fact a total antigenic. It’s the end of civilization and also the end of culture. Man is driven into a corner, and nature reclaiming her rights is savagery reappearing.
You are talking about the end of civilization. From a strictly aesthetic point of view, the ruins are a romantic justification.
Guillaume Herbaut: This is true and is something which struck us immediately. We couldn’t sidestep this dimension/aspect, even if it was ambiguous. We always imagined lovely babushkas who would continue to live in Chernobyl, an idealized image. In fact it’s a horror scene. The relationships between them are very strained, they don’t meet anyone. One day we arrived in a village, we asked the last resident in the village how long it had been since she had seen someone, and she couldn’t answer us. They live in total filth, it’s foul.
There are younger people who’ve just moved into the zone.
Guillaume Herbaut: Yes, because Chernobyl has become a sort of refuge.
Bruno Masi: It’s a little white trash. Ukraine was hit very hard during the economic crisis and the youth were at loss, at a total breaking point, deciding to go over there, to the zone, because of the empty houses you can live in for free. It’s either that, or struggle in Kiev.
Guillaume Herbaut: They’re burying themselves alive. Sometimes they even go with children. In the documentary there’s a portrait of a little girl with her parents in a forbidden zone, she’s five years old and without a future.
There’s no social life?
Guillaume Herbaut: There’s a social life, but it’s rough. The only pastime is drinking. Sometime you arrive in the village and everyone is wasted.
How do you go about talking to these babushkas and the other residents?
Guillaume Herbaut: The residents want to talk, so it’s very simple. You need to spend time there, meeting them, talking. To meet people, it was really very easy, we just made use of the map. We took the zone’s map and every day we’d say to ourselves, “Let’s go there,” and the map would tell us where to go. I remember a day when I had nothing to do; we were rolling around the edge of a village. There, we fell upon a woman who the following day was secretly going to cross over the forbidden zone to met her twenty year old daughter who had moved there with her new boyfriend. So the next day we came back and crossed over into the zone with her and she told us her story.
Bruno Masi: We spent four months in one place, which is a sort of luxury in journalism nowadays. And we did real field journalism work, almost the work of a local journalist, going to the corner shops, chatting with people.
You talk about the zone as a sort of isolated place, shut off into itself. Have the residents developed a sense of belonging? How do they see the Ukraine?
Bruno Masi: For the rest of Ukraine, this place is dead, a wound. They’re afraid of it and don’t want to think about it. For those who are there, what we noticed is that over and above the hardship of their lives over there, was the extreme difficulty in leaving.
Guillaume Herbaut: Chernobyl is not a prison but a refuge. Even when we were there, we were well there. Curiously, right in the face of danger, we were under the impression of doing really well.
Bruno Masi: It’s cut off from the world. It’s the way that they live.
Guillaume Herbaut: For the young that move there, it’s the far-west. For Piotr, who’s Chechnyan, it’s the only place where he can go. For undocumented immigrants, Moldavians and others, it’s the only place where they can find work.
And are there still laws?
Bruno Masi: There are monstrous shadows, black boxes with no laws. There’s a village called Bazar that’s in the zone but not within the fence’s delimitations as it should be. It doesn’t have a checkpoint, despite the area being under militia control, and [so became] the only village with an ever-growing population. And the whole zone is controlled by the state’s mafia.
Guillaume Herbaut: You could even say it was medieval. Over there, militia men are known as “Lords of the zone.”
The idea behind transmedia is to fragment the discourses and to hold one on each of the branches (documentary, installation, book). How did you come up with this formula?
Bruno Masi: Transmedia is directly linked to our practice. We’ve worked together for 10 years on the collision between text and image and on the ways through which we draw out the confrontational sensibilities of the two. The idea is that the text should not be just the photograph’s subtitle and the photographs merely an illustration of the text. When we started working on this project in 2009, we told ourselves that we could try and complete the research by adding video and sound. The key question was how we should approach the complexity of the land, how to tell the stories as accurately as possible, as well as our own experiences with the location.
Transmedia involves using different narratives through various mediums, while still taking each medium’s specificities into account. For the webdocumentary, we tell the inhabitants’ stories through an online platform. For the installation, we’re using a different form, a physical experience that places people in the middle of a device that recreates the original accident. Finally, the book assembles every one of our experiences, with a photo and literary narrative.
All photos courtesy of: LA ZONE © GUILLAUME HERBAUT – INSTITUTE