Chernobyl's Tragic Legacy
"I want people to see," said photographer Paul Fusco. "For Lida, it has to be as painful as possible." Lida is the mother of Aleysa Beoia, a seventeen-year-old girl who Fusco watched die in 2000, as he was shooting a collection of work called Chernobyl Legacy.
His photographs show horror in black and white: An intelligent, lively four-year-old with almost no lymphatic system, his limbs swollen into monstrous trunks; a toddler whose torso blossoms into a tumor that cannot be removed, since his kidneys are contained within it; a baby born with its brain outside its body; children slithering around the floor, wordless pack animals, groaning and rolling, eating from bowls like dogs.
Fusco spent many months, over three visits, exploring state-run facilities dedicated to taking care of children damaged by radiation. They receive suitable care and affection, but no education. Many were born years after the 1986 accident and handed over at birth by devastated parents.
"Everything, anything that can go wrong with a body was there, and more," says Fusco. "It's astonishing the amount, the different kinds of destruction. It was like looking at a different race."
While his work found an audience in Europe, he says it received little attention from the press in the United States. However, after last month's catastrophe at the Fukushima Da-ichi plant in Japan, some have stumbled upon his Chernobyl Legacy slideshow at the Magnum Photos website, with its haunting music and forthright narration, and, trying to make sense of the situation, linked to his photographs online. (Fair warning: The photos are graphic.)
After viewing the slideshow, a blogger comments, "I can't help but have a fearful heart for Japan." Writes another: "This is so shocking! Disturbing! But real, unfortunately! Why doesn't humanity learn from its mistakes?"
The International Atomic Energy Agency views the accident in Japan as one more serious than the partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island, but says it's nowhere near the scale of the disaster that occurred in Ukraine twenty-five years ago. Yet each day, tests detect more contamination. Low levels of iodine-131 and cesium-137 in the drinking water of several prefectures, albeit "at levels far below those that would initiate recommendations for restrictions of drinking water," are high enough to prompt warnings for infants. The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare has detected very low-level contamination in spinach, leafy vegetables, and some meat. Individuals living within a 20 kilometer radius of the plant have been evacuated, and those who live within 30 kilometers have been asked to leave voluntarily.
The history of nuclear technology is as short as it is inscrutable; victims, witnesses, physicians, and governments can only speak in theory. Only a month after the accident, long-term health risks are described as "patchy" and "unclear," as officials begin testing the playgrounds of schools and nurseries. Just as a precaution.
At three years old, Aleysa Beoia ran out to play in the contaminated rain. At eleven, she was diagnosed with lymphoma, just one of the innumerable, horrific tricks that high-level or long-term radiation can play on the body of a living thing.
Paul Fusco, now 80, spoke to me by phone from his home in San Francisco. He is not a nuclear expert, nor is he an expert on the physical effects of radiation, nor the situation in Fukushima. Rather, he is a professional photographer, and witness to a tragedy that forever changed his life and work. It is from that place he speaks.
"We can't let this happen again, ever," he said. "All these innocent people, all they did was be born and live here. And look at what's happened to them."
His voice still cracks with emotion when he recounts the heartbroken mother sitting at the bedside of her teenaged daughter, so alert, bright, and beautiful just the day before, watching as she slipped into a coma and died.
"I think of Lida a lot," he said. "Because I tried to do her honestly."
He remembers asking her if he could photograph Aleysa, just before she passed away. "Yes," she screamed. "I want everyone to see what they've done!"
"The whole world should see those kids," said Fusco, "Because it's no good for any of us. Everything we make as human beings, nature eventually breaks."