Thoughts on Chernobyl Legacy

I looked at a number of different slideshows before finally deciding to discuss “Chernobyl Legacy” by Paul Fusco.  I found many alluring stories and even more that included far too much video for this particular assignment.  Although “Chernobyl Legacy” does include a small bit of video itself, it really only serves to break up the photographic monotony and give perspective on photojournalist Fusco who himself appears in the video and narrates the entire story. For all intents and purposes this is very much an audio photos essay. Click http://www.mediastorm.org/0007.htm to view the essay on Media Storm’s Web site (or click http://inmotion.magnumphotos.com/essay/chernobyl to view the essay in its entirety on Magnum Photos’ Web site).

Click on image to view slideshow

Click on image to view slideshow


As a child born in the early 80’s, the profundity of what it means when someone utters the word “Chernobyl” has always been a part of my awareness.  That’s not to say, however, that I’ve ever fully understood exactly what happened on that fateful day in 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine.  A need for understanding drew me further into this story.

As the description for “Chernobyl Legacy” informs readers on MediaStorm.org, the accidental nuclear explosion that took place at Chernobyl on April 26, 1986, is still considered the world’s worst nuclear accident to date.  Its effects reached all the way to Europe, Asia, and Greenland.  But its concentration fell on the former Soviet Union, largely throughout Belarus.  The photo essay by Paulo Fusco revisits the affected nation of Belarus to show what radiation from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant did to the people living there.



In a day and age where many nations are once again looking to nuclear power for various reasons, a look back at the impact of Chernobyl seems utterly important.  Undoubtedly what happened at Chernobyl in 1986 is not likely to be seen again in the same magnitude being that science and technology have advanced greatly in the past two decades.  Nevertheless such risks still exist when looking at nuclear power today.

The photographs in this essay where taken by Fusco long after the disaster originally occurred; however, the varying ages of the children photographed proves that radioactive disasters have far-reaching effects long into the future.  Everything is touched by a radioactive disaster: people, animals, plants, land, water, and so on.



All of the photographs in this piece are black and white. Stylistically I think this was an intelligent choice.  The images are stark and clinical in presentation, yet filled with emotion and heartache.  They appear cold and bleak, much like the land in which they were taken, but they are pictures of children and their unfortunate circumstance.  Additionally the perspective of light and dark  lends itself to the subject matter, highlighting the different disfigurements observed by the naked eye.


It would be impossible to see these disturbing pictures and not have a visceral response. Thankfully, Fusco is aware of this and lets the pictures speak for themselves. He does not try to analyze the individual photographs and he keeps any text to the bare minimum.  What he does describe is a terrible aftermath where a child’s exposure to radiation can lead to deformity and mental degradation of various stages.  He shows us an unnerving reality.


Fusco keeps his story moving along at a very good pace.  You’re never bored waiting for the next frame, nor are you ever left wishing that he would slow down so you could accept the magnitude of the situation.  He understands the story and its importance and he conveys that very well.  His narrative is very conversational and soothing.  It makes you feel as if someone much older and wiser is explaining something to you that you should very much want to understand. The slow, somber song underscoring the slideshow keeps beautiful time with the piece and very effectively pulls at your heartstrings without you ever realizing it.



The only negative criticism that I have for this piece is that is seems a bit too short.  As soon as you find yourself deeply invested in the story, it ends suddenly.  Not only did I find myself wanting to see more photographs, but I also felt like I was not given a full enough landscape of different people whose lives were affected by the disaster.  I was given a mere snapshot into one hospital and no more.  That’s not to say, though, that I didn’t greatly appreciate the experience that I was allowed to have. I just want more.


Paul Fusco is an American photographer who has been a working member of the co-op Magnum Photos since 1973. The photos featured in “Chernobyl Legacy” were taken by him between 1997 – 2000.

I contacted photographer Paul Fusco via e-mail and he told me that he was not too thrilled about the representation of his photo essay on MediaStorm.org. He directed me to MagnumPhotos.com where I was able to view his essay in its entirety, which is quite elaborate when compared to the scaled-down version featured on Media Storm’s Web site. And, I have to agree with Fusco that a story of this magnitude should be viewed with more time and attention than the average digestible Web video.

While narrating his essay, Fusco says, “It took me about six months to arrange [the trip] and it was an awakening to the problem that was just overwhelming. And this two-week story turned into a two-month endeavor, because I couldn’t leave. It changed my life. It changed what I wanted to do. It was so immense in its implications.”

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September 2009

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