In March 2009, Timm Suess took his camera and Geiger counter on a two-day tour of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The Ukraine government has opened this 19-mile area to visitors, though private tours have been showing the area to roughly 6,000 people a year for some time. Suess, originally from Switzerland, is an industrial psychologist who specializes in urban decay photography, seeking beauty where most would turn away. He wrote about his trip in a blog titled “Chernobyl Journal.”
His photographs are particularly poignant on April 26, 2011 – 25 years since Reactor No. 4 exploded, releasing a cloud of radioactive fallout that spread over northern Europe, most of it landing in the former U.S.S.R. In the most severely contaminated areas surrounding Chernobyl, 350,000 people were evacuated. The nearby town of Pripyat, which was home for 50,000, became a crumbling ghost town. It is here that Suess took many of his pictures. He also came within 600 yards of Reactor No. 4 and its deteriorating sarcophagus.
A U.N.-sponsored report concluded that, as of 2005, over 6,000 children who drank contaminated milk soon after the accident developed thyroid cancer. Uncertain figures surround other types of cancer; for one reason, the Soviet government prevented scientists from gathering good data after the accident. The grim documentary Chernobyl Heart – winner of an Academy Award – gives the perspective of physicians and their patients, along with caregivers of deformed and abandoned children.
In these images, the combination of subject matter and artistry – together – illustrates two extremes of which humans are capable: massive destruction and the creation of harmony and beauty.
The Chernobyl disaster is still unfolding after a quarter of a century. For those like me, who have resisted all but a superficial study of Chernobyl – because of the vast horror of it all – Timm Suess’ art draws us in for an important closer look.
Holly Clark Coburn is a freelance editor and writer. She studied biology and art at a liberal arts school and received an MFA in creative writing.