Chernobyl's ghost town residents

Photographer Gerd Ludwig captures the survivors of the nuclear tragedy who have returned home

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Suffering from thyroid cancer, Oleg Shapiro, 54, and Dima Bogdanovich, 13, receive care at a thyroid hospital in Minsk, where surgery is performed daily Gerd Ludwig / INSTITUTE

Once a densely populated Ukrainian city, Pripyat is now a ghost town – completely abandoned. Nearby, Chernobyl is populated only by inhabitants that can't bear to leave the only place they know. In 1986, the population was evacuated after the explosion and fire at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, but several hundred older residents have disregarded the dangers of residual contamination and returned home to villages scattered throughout the contaminated Exclusion Zone. They wanted the right to die on their own soil.

Photographer Gerd Ludwig first visited Chernobyl in 1993 for National Geographic, and has been back three times in the last twenty years. He is now raising money on Kickstarter to fund the publication of The Long Shadow Of Chernobyl, which documents his visits to the ravaged city and the ill fated power plant itself. 

"Initially about 700 of the elderly returned," he tells us. "At first, the authorities declared them illegal residents and tried to have them removed, but then they realised that these people had lived there for their whole lives. There was no mobility in the former Soviet Union, so to generations of people, Chernobyl was all they knew."

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Severely physically and mentally handicapped, 5-year-old Igor was given up by his parents and now lives at a children’s mental asylum, which cares for abandoned and orphaned children with disabilities Gerd Ludwig / INSTITUTE

"In the end they let them stay – these people wanted the right to die on their own soil, rather than die of a broken heart in an anonymous suburb. They grow food on contaminated soil, drink from poisonous wells and it's only recently that they've gained access to mobile phones – they live amongst total devastation." Now, only 200 residents remain in Chernobyl; the rest have passed away. 

Nearly thirty years on, radiation levels around the site are still dangerous – in the early years of working in Chernobyl, Ludwig still wore a protective suit whilst he worked. He went deeper into the reactor than any other Western photographer. "There are rooms near to the reactor that I was only allowed to stay in for seconds at a time, and I definitely had to wear a suit. Parts of the zone are still so radioactive that you can't stay there for any prolonged amount of time."

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Gerd Ludwig is suited up as he prepares to enter the radioactive reactor #4. Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, 2005. Gerd Ludwig

But what really left an impression on Ludwig was the defiance of those who chose to return. "What I found to be so stunning, was that when I photographed people in their pain and their suffering, they wanted me to photograph them (despite) knowing full well that these photos wouldn't help their lives. They wanted me to expose their suffering to serve as a reminder to the world that this must never happen again. I call these people my heroes."

"To walk around The Zone is incredibly emotional," he continued. "It is obvious that the people were evacuated and told they could return in a few days – there are remnants of joy everywhere. Children's toys and dolls are still scattered around the abandoned school houses. But slowly and surely, everything is being taken by scavengers. Pripyat has become a skeleton of a city. It is a place where time stood still forever."

Gerd Ludwig's book The Long Shadow Of Chernobyl is being funded on Kickstarter and will be published in three languages. If you want to look at film footage of Chernobyl then download Ludwig's Chernobyl app here.

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