The stoic victims of the nuclear age

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

RUSSIANS say nuclear power is a smart hat for stupid people, says the Dutch photographer Robert Knoth. His exhibition Certificate No. 000358/ at the Australian Centre for Photography documents the effects of nuclear pollution - from weapons testing, fuel production to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster - on the stoic citizens of the former Soviet Union.

The centrepiece of the exhibition and a book that accompanies it is a photograph of a Chernobyl victim called Anna Pesenko, but the main story lies elsewhere, Knoth says. He was speaking on a recent visit to Sydney.

"Chernobyl wasn't strictly an accident," he maintains, "but an experiment that got out of control - they knew what kind of risks they were taking - that their nuclear power plants were unsafe and then … they just proceeded.

"But in Kazakhstan over 7 million people were affected by Russia testing more than 400 nuclear weapons."

His formal portrait of the Sultanat family, who still farm only kilometres from Lake Balapan, where more than 100 nuclear tests took place, shows people now afflicted by radiation sickness and birth defects.

"Testing in Kazakhstan was very calculated," Knoth notes. "The old Gulag system under Stalin was comparable with what happened [there]."

Knoth's serene portrait of the 15-year old tumour victim Pesenko dominates the exhibition and the accompanying book, produced in collaboration with the photographer's wife, the journalist Antoinette de Jong. The book's title refers to the number Pesenko was given as a victim of Chernobyl.

"I was looking for an icon," Knoth admits, "someone really special. Many villages we visited were half empty … trying to make the best of a very bad situation … it wasn't uplifting.

"But as soon as I entered Anna's house I knew she was the story I needed. But at the same time I just wanted to leave. The only reason I stayed is that without her it wouldn't have been the same book.

"It took us two weeks to convince Anna's nurses to introduce us to her family - we spoke to them for a morning and explained what we wanted. And they agreed. But when I came to take her photograph I hardly dared enter the room. Then Anna became very relaxed … she was briefly without pain and enjoying the moment … and attention. That was when I shot the photo." As our conversation ends, Knoth makes a surprising admission.

"When I walked on ground zero in Kazakhstan - where Russia's first nuclear bomb was detonated in 1949 … if someone had given me a red button and said one would go off safely and I could witness it - I would have been tempted. A nuclear explosion is quite beautiful in a macabre sort of way."

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