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Yogyakarta Gets a Glimpse of the Horror of Chernobyl, 25 Years On

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, but a photography exhibition now on display in Yogyakarta, “Certificate No. 000358/,” shows that its impact is far from over.

Through a series of over 50 heart-rending photographs taken by award-winning photojournalist Robert Knoth and accompanied by text written by investigative journalist Antoinette de Jong, the exhibit depicts the ongoing struggles of individuals and communities in Russia and eastern Europe in the wake of nuclear disasters.

“Certificate No. 000358/” has already toured more than 70 cities around the world and will be on display in Yogyakarta’s Sangkring Art Space until July 25 before heading to Bandung, where Knoth and de Jong will attend the opening at Galeri Soemardja in September.

The exhibition’s title refers to the story of a woman named Annya Pesenko, born four years after the Chernobyl explosion in an area of Gomel, Belarus, still contaminated by the radioactive fallout.

Pesenko is shown in a series of Knoth’s images taken from 2005 to 2011, when she was battling multiple brain tumors that left her bedridden. To her doctors in Belarus, Annya was just one of many victims, a number on a slip of paper: Certificate No. 000358/.

“Annya’s story was certainly one of the most dramatic ones,” Knoth said, adding that stories like hers were not rare, either.

“The dramas due to Chernobyl are taking place mostly behind closed doors in family homes,” he said.

“While doing this kind of work, you build up a wall around you to keep from being overcome by the dreadful events the people you photograph had to go through. There are, however, some who are able to break through that shield, like Annya and her parents,” he added.

Knoth and de Jong spent years in eastern Europe gathering the stories of families still feeling the effects of nuclear accidents. Their words and images are powerful reminders that when it comes to nuclear energy, the smallest errors can be catastrophic, leaving scars that remain well after a disaster fades from the public spotlight.

One black-and-white photo taken in 2001 in Muslyumovo, Russia, shows youths dancing and kissing, but the seemingly happy scene is accompanied by a bleak narrative: “On Saturday night there is a disco for young people in the community hall. Most kids want to leave the region because of nuclear pollution, poverty and social problems.”

Knoth, de Jong and curator of the Yogyakarta exhibition Malcolm Smith decided to bring “Certificate No. 000358/” to Indonesia three years ago, when the trio worked together in Australia. Knoth said that Indonesia is on the cusp of a drive to develop nuclear energy. “From that perspective, it’s logical to bring the exhibition here,” he said.

Hindun Mulaika of Greenpeace Asia Pacific, a sponsor of the Yogyakarta exhibition, said it would be unwise to build nuclear reactors in Indonesia, where natural disasters have increased in frequency by 30 percent in the last 10 years.

“Indonesia is prone to both tectonic and volcanic calamities. But nuclear energy advocates in Indonesia have not presented a balanced assessment of the advantages and dangers,” Mulaika said.

“We cannot afford to make mistakes with nuclear technology, because we don’t have a solution for the consequences,” de Jong agreed. “ Look at Chernobyl, Mayak, Fukushima. The main reason I wanted to work on this project was because the nuclear industry is trying to rewrite history by portraying itself as green and clean. I wanted to show another side to this topic. I wanted to highlight the human cost of the nuclear industry.”

At the July 1 opening in Yogyakarta, Smith said that while modern societies are routinely bombarded by shocking, sensational images of disasters, Knoth’s work “allows us to connect with the victims on a personal level, to understand their hopes as well as their suffering.”

De Jong, who began working with Knoth in Afghanistan 15 years ago, explained in an e-mail interview that making those connections took time and honesty.

“The most important part of reporting is to have a genuine interest in the people you are working with and to be respectful toward them. You have to appreciate that people trust you with very intimate details of their lives and you have to be very responsible with the information they share,” she said.

“It’s basically a matter of trust,” she added. The closer you get, the better the pictures.”

‘Certificate No. 000358/’
Robert Knoth
& Antoinette
de Jong

Sangkring Art Space
RT01/RW2 No. 88, Ngestiharjo
Kasihan, Bantul, Yogyakarta
July 1 – 25

Galeri Soemardja
Jl. Ganesha 10, Bandung
September 11 – 17

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