Expositie: 2016 - Still Alive

Bound to the ground

Interview with Esther Hessing

On Saturday 22 October at 17.00 in Het Nutshuis, photographer Esther Hessing and writer Sophieke Thurmer will present their new photo book Bound to the Ground. An astounding portrayal of their journey through some of the areas in and around Chernobyl that were heavily affected by the nuclear disaster in 1986.


“It wasn’t easy to take photos there,” says Hessing. “If the guide thought I was spending too much time in one place, he tried to usher me back into the car ASAP.”

The first time the photographer was taken to the ‘Exclusion Zone’ of Chernobyl by a guide in early 2015, she couldn’t believe her eyes. “I’d expected to see deserted towns and villages surrounded by a barren landscape.” These were, after all, the images we had been fed by the media. “But to my amazement, I saw that people are still living there. Permanently. They even grow their own food.” This is despite the fact that the area within thirty kilometres of the nuclear reactor where the accident occurred is still officially uninhabitable. It’s too dangerous. There is a high risk of being exposed to radiation and only short visits are considered safe.
Freedom reigns
So what makes these ‘self-settlers’ want to stay? Hessing and Thurmer spent the last two years trying to answer this question. They discovered that this unique community comprises around one hundred and forty people, the majority of whom are over eighty. Scores of them were happy to share their stories and welcomed the camera into their private domain. Baba Hannah, her grey hair arranged in a flowery scarf, was one of them.  

Once you know that the ground is highly contaminated, the photos of her thriving vegetable patch and stock of preserved home-grown fruits take on a more sinister meaning. These are possibly the most disturbing images in the series.  

Hessing: “After the mass evacuation from the Exclusion Zone in 1986, these elderly people gradually began to return. They found it too difficult to leave the place where they had lived since birth and couldn’t adjust to life in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine which is about a hundred kilometres away.” The photographer continues: “They cherish their life in the country: self-sufficient, independent, and since the fall of the Soviet Union, free from state intervention.”

A cheerful vase of flowers stands on the kitchen table in the simple, neat, colourful house of her neighbour Maria. Hessing: “This trip has taught me that you don’t necessarily need the government or a pot of money to live a good life. I’ve also witnessed the incredible resilience shown by man and nature in the wake of a disaster like this.” One of the most symbolic photos shows a bush with bright red rosehips pushing its way through a blanket of snow. Salient detail: one rose bush per resident was planted in every city where nuclear power plants were built in the Soviet Union. The authorities hoped that this would make the cities more attractive to the population.

Protecting Europe
During their quest, much to their surprise Hessing and Thurmer stumbled across a second storyline. “I had absolutely no idea that around two-and-a-half thousand people still work in the nuclear plant,” says Hessing. Every day, people of all ages equipped with radiation meters put their health on the line to maintain the nuclear reactor and help prevent a new European nuclear disaster.

“A lot of the older employees are there out of a sense of duty. They feel responsible for the fact that they worked there when the accident occurred,” explains Hessing. “In their own way, they want to make amends.” But like the younger people who work there, they are also pleased to have work as jobs are in short supply in and around Chernobyl.
The people working at Chernobyl enjoy the benefits of special schemes and relatively high wages, which seems to suggest that the tasks they perform might be slightly ‘irregular’. The standard of facilities such as education and healthcare in the city of Slavutych, which was custom-built for people working in the nuclear plant, is largely better than in other Ukrainian cities.

Hessing and Thurmer had to be persistent, just like the people living and working in and around Chernobyl. “A lot of people didn’t think that our research would get off the ground,” explains Hessing. “I’ll admit that it was a difficult project. Particularly because the radiation hazard meant that we couldn’t travel as and where we pleased. We had to go along with the places and people chosen by our guide.” But they were determined that the world should hear the stories of the people living in Chernobyl and Slavutych.
Having returned to the Netherlands, they focused their time and effort on compiling the book. Their pitch at Het Nutshuis represented a huge breakthrough. “Het Nutshuis gave us funding for our book and helped us with the promotional side. The photo book and our exhibition provide a fabulous platform for our work.”

Everyone is warmly invited to the presentation of Bound to the Ground at 17.00 on 22 October in Het Nutshuis, The Hague. During the opening of the Still Alive exhibition at 17.00, Hessing and Thurmer will present the first copy of their book to Alexander Münninghoff,   Moscow correspondent for the Haagsche Courant at the time of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl.

 Photo: Maria and Ivan’s garden