23 September 2008

flakphoto + direct line to stalin


flakphoto.com, a site actively supporting contemporary photography
(+ worth checking out)
is featuring



this month -

showing a photo a day from the book


andy put up my pic : #65 direct line to stalin on 17 sept.

Here is the text I wrote for the FOTOFEST catalogue in 2005 to give a background on the series.


#65 CLOSED CITY by Nathalie Latham

I knew very little about city N°65 as little information existed about the place. During the Soviet Union era it was one of the secret cities where military activities took place. The cities were designated with numbers instead of names, and didn’t appear on maps. N° 65 was particularly special because it was where the first Soviet atomic bomb was made. It was also the site of history’s greatest nuclear accident, in 1957, decades before Chernobyl.

I travelled with three scientists from Columbia University who were studying, with Russian colleagues, the effects of radiation on the chromosomes of people who had worked at the Mayak plutonium plant, the city’s main employer. I had been interested by the scientists’ work as they are directly addressing the issue of what it really means for human beings to be exposed to, and living with, radiation. The scientists were keen to involve me as an artist/ photographer, in order to disseminate ideas about their work outside the scientific realm. This visit meant I was the first photographer from the West to be entering this closed city.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the city lost its numerical designation and was given the name Ozyorsk – “city of lakes.” I was told the city was still closed today because its 80,000 inhabitants had voted to keep it closed. They could leave, but no one could come in.

What did it mean to live in a closed city all one’s life? Why on earth would people vote to keep it closed?

I was told not worry about radiation but to prepare for cold, around minus 20 C. The scientists gave me snapshots from their last visit, showing a dull, anonymous Soviet town. I found some articles on the environmental consequences of radiation in the area, and tried to decipher Dr David J. Brenner’s papers on chromosomal damage. Ozyorsk was important for his research because it is a place where several generations exposed to low-dosage radiation still lived together.

When we arrived in Ozyorsk, we were given a schedule of our movements hour by hour for the six days of our visit. This schedule had been approved by the Russian Government and we were not to deviate from it.

For two days I photographed the scientists at work, carrying out their procedures to make sure that the blood samples met the standards their research required. (Their study measures the impact of radiation on individual chromosomes.) The hospital laboratory had that old Soviet look, where the d├ęcor was frozen in the 1960s but people’s presence and labour kept the space alive.

I asked the Russians what it was like to live here. I wanted to understand why one would want to keep a city like this closed. The answers were strangely familiar: It was a good place to raise children. It was safe to walk around. There were no hooligans. There was no mafia. There were good schools, good apartments. Everyone knew one another.

Most of all, there were jobs. Unemployment in Russia is high, and the closed city grants work to all its residents. Elena, who prepared the blood samples, was eager to marry her boyfriend so he could get a permit to come live with her. Nadia, a doctor who grew up in Kazakstan, met her Ozyorsk-born husband while studying medicine and followed him back. Igor, our driver, came back after his military service in Moscow.

On my third day I experienced photo-fatigue. I felt like a mouse caught in a cage. I had photographed every angle and object in these claustrophobic rooms. And I could not leave the premises due to the all controlling schedule.

Fortunately, I was able to meet and photograph some of the hospital’s patients. They were Mayak plutonium workers and retired workers. Some were on their annual check up, which lasted four days. Others were being treated for advanced cancer.

Each meeting was moving. Each person told me about their life. They spoke of what good workers they had been. One man cried when he spoke about how his life was now coming to an end. A woman spoke softly of her children and grandchildren and how her husband and all her friends had died. She told me how she loved to pick mushrooms; she felt it was being amongst the trees and nature that had saved her. Another told me how her sister starved in the Leningrad blockade, and how she had moved to Ozyorsk with her niece and nephew to raise them single-handedly, while working at the Mayak plutonium plant.

Each life story was full of fragility, beauty and sadness. And after meeting each person, what struck me the most was their desire to live a normal life, to be able to raise their children or grandchildren in a good enough environment, in a place where they could grow their flowers and vegetables.

During the Cold War, these workers were heroes. City No 65 had symbolically protected Mother Russia from the Americans. Now history had shifted and its legends expired. There was no longer any cause, just life. And in some cases, illness and death.

When I was growing up in Brisbane, Australia, my father, a doctor, campaigned for nuclear disarmament. He would tell us about nuclear fallout and what a bomb would do to our city. His stories turned me off my dinner and gave me nightmares. They made me question why human beings would create such awful technology.

I didn’t find the answers in Ozyorsk; just dignified men and women whom history had already forgotten, and like me, were searching for peace in their own way. ©Text by Nathalie Latham 2005

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