By Joe Shearer, Photo Editor
“Have you ever been to Chernobyl?”
That’s a question that most of us have never been asked.
“Do you want to go to Chernobyl?”
That is a question most of us will never be asked, at least not in jest. But for Omaha-born photographer Jim Krantz, the question was all too real.
In 2009, Krantz was invited by a European journalist to embark on a trip to Ukraine to photograph the “Forbidden Zone.” Covering an area roughly 19 miles in diameter, the “Forbidden Zone” received the most substantial damage from the 1986 explosion and fire at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in what was formerly the USSR. This historical accident displaced thousands of people, most of who have not returned to this day. Some have returned, however, and Krantz was able to experience life in their shoes, if only for a short time.
At the KANEKO gallery downtown on March 2, Krantz shared what he experienced and captured via the lens on his 2009 and 2010 trips. He brought along friend and environmentalist Henry Henderson of the Natural Resources Defense Council to take part in a discussion and field questions from attendants.
Over 150 people showed up to the space functioning as a gallery to experience these photos and listen to the presentation. As visitors slowly trickled in to circle around the circumference of the gallery space to look at the photo prints, songs from the likes of Billy Ocean, Talking Heads, Madonna and more aired from a PA system. Lively and danceable music seemed like the last thing one would listen to while viewing images of such emotional magnitude, though. Krantz explained that the music wasn’t played just to lighten the mood in the room.
“Talk about parallel worlds,” Krantz said. “That’s the kind of stuff I was immersed in back in April of 1986. That’s the world I was in that day. Same world, same day though, we’re over here listening to Run DMC and Billy Ocean, and [the people near Chernobyl] were standing under the fog of a nuclear explosion. Like I said, parallel worlds; but tonight they intersect.”
The event’s activities were much more than just looking at images. Krantz said that more than anything, he wanted his photos to tell the story of the people who returned to their homes in the battered land around Chernobyl. He also wanted the photos to act as a catalyst for discussion on how humans use the environment and harness natural resources.
The images ranged from smile-inducing to tear-shedding, as one would expect from a photo essay over such a monumental subject. Throughout his excursion, Krantz roamed the countryside in search of human life during his two trips. Not knowing a word of Russian, Krantz had a handful of colorful encounters with local people. While snapping away, many of the strangers he encountered invited him to join them in random slices of life: drinking vodka, eating irradiated meals or visiting with family. These people were making do with what they had, and despite being in the known danger of the radiation-soaked land, they just wanted to be home with the little they had. Through the happy and depressing, Krantz captured all of the emotions.
Throughout their discussion, Krantz and Henderson championed for the public and government officials alike to fight for clean energy. The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 was a shining example of how people are underestimating the effects of the different types of energies used today and in the past.
“The events at Chernobyl in 1986 were the results of grotesque human failure,” Henderson said. “This is documentation of a huge footprint of the results of major human decisions that can have untold effects on our community. These same types of decisions are being made today and can have numerous implications on our surroundings.”
Visual communication is more than just looking at pictures. It’s expressing humanity through various mediums and images. Sometimes it is used to influences the masses. Krantz hopes that his photographs are able influence a few generations of problem-solvers.
“I can’t go back and help this woman. I know that this man sitting on the bed with his head down has passed away,” Krantz said, pointing at various photos of the verified deceased. “But [exposing these images to the public] can help all these other people at Chernobyl or anywhere.”
Those who want to see the exhibition in person, Krantz’s Chernobyl photos will be hanging at KANEKO on the corner 11th and Jones streets through March 10. For more information, visit thekaneko.org or call (402) 341-4523.