2016 Photo Contest, People, 1st prize



Kazuma Obara

28 April, 2015

On 26 April 1986, a nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near the town of Pripyat, Ukraine, resulted in large amounts of radioactive material being released into the atmosphere. Radioactive particles—the contaminating effects of which can last for years—were carried downwind through much of the western USSR and Europe. Five months after the disaster, a girl named Mariya was born in Kiev, 100 km south of Chernobyl. She grew up suffering from chronic thyroiditis, one of the results of radiation poisoning. These images represent 30 years of her life.

In April 2015, the photographer’s assistant discovered 20 rolls of unused color film in Pripyat, with a 1992 expiry date. The photographer set about shooting images taken in places which related to the Chernobyl accident: the apartment of somebody displaced by the accident, a hospital treating people with radiation illnesses, an apartment where nuclear workers were living at the time of the accident, a school for children whose parents used to live in the restricted zone around Chernobyl, and current pictures of the plant.

When it came to processing the negatives, the photographer had to improvise and experiment. The chemicals he needed for developing the old Ukrainian color film were no longer available, but he found that using black-and-white chemicals on over-exposed film gave a result that suited his purposes. He wanted to capture the current situation, but also to help people imagine the invisible problems, such as those experienced by Mariya.

Mariya was admitted into an intensive care unit soon after being born. Much of her childhood was spent in different hospitals, without receiving a diagnosis. She feels that so much time lying in hospital without her mother has had a long-term effect on her character.

When Mariya was 19, her symptoms grew more acute. Her heart rate accelerated to 120—130 beats a minute, and she developed a severe tremor, which put an end to her studies to be an architect. She could not understand what was happening, and found the whole experience frightening. She says that it bothered her to be branded as ‘disabled’, that she had the feeling the word would bury her. She also felt in some way guilty for her predicament.

It took Mariya many years to work through these emotions, but she no longer feels guilty, nor does she blame anyone. She needs a lot of medication, but her heart rate is more under control. After re-establishing contact with her estranged parents, she feels like she has been re-living much of what she missed in her childhood. And she has been embarking on new ventures—on travel, and taking up painting. She says she no longer feels overwhelmed by life.

About the photographer

Kazuma Obara

After the tsunami and nuclear disaster in 2011, he began documenting the disaster area, photographing from inside Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Obara was the first photo...

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