It is hard to take good photographs in hazmat gear, but in 1986 Oleksandr Salmygin had no choice.
After the April 26 nuclear explosion, taking hazardous-materials protective clothing off near Chornobyl meant sure death.
Salmygin was one of the photographers documenting the aftermath of the world’s biggest industrial nuclear accident at the fourth reactor of the now-closed Chornobyl nuclear power plant. His photos depicted the life of the nearby town of Prypyat, where workers lived, as well as people fleeing the exclusion zone at the order of the Communist Party. The 30 square kilometer zone has remained a wildlife area ever since.
Salmygin says that he has taken pictures of the Chornobyl power plant since 1971, when its first reactor was built, and knows the area intimately.
Incidentally, on the day of the tragedy he arrived to Prypyat and shot non-stop for Pravda Severa newspaper, where he worked at the time.
Later he donated many of his photos to the “Chronicles of Difficult Weeks” documentary project, where he also worked.
When the government committee for dealing with the aftermath of disaster opened an information unit in Chornobyl, he volunteered to be the staff photographer. “I never hesitated.
For more than 10 years I was an official photo-chronicler of Chornobyl,” he says with a smile and without any trace of regret.
In 1988, Salmygin shot a mummified dog in Prypyat, the ghost town where Chornobyl workers and their families once lived. (Oleksandr Salmygin)
As the gray-haired man of 65 leaned on his walking stick, Salmygin talked about how Chornobyl had left an imprint on his life.
He says he only started to receive a higher pension given to Chornobyl liquidators in 2004, and the clerk in the pension office was very suspicious about his claims.
“Chornobyl liquidators don’t live that long,” he quoted her as saying.
“Thanks God, I can afford the necessary medications. But it is getting worse and worse with every year,” he says.
For him, walking is a struggle because of impaired blood circulation to his legs and feet. He has other blood disorders that doctors say are caused by radiation.
But he remains active and proud of the role he played when he was younger. “I helped technical liquidators to plan further actions, and scientists to track the mutational changes in plants and animals. I have done the whole research,” he says.
The information unit Salmygin worked for, also took care of the foreign reporters that arrived to shoot in Prypyat and he accompanied photographers.
“I shared with them all my secrets, showed them the best views and spots for shooting,” he says. “We cheated a lot to pass the pictures and materials abroad. We understood that the world should know about the tragedy.”
In the Soviet Union, where information and misinformation on Chornobyl was controlled tightly by the Communist Party, many books, reports and scientific works were censored.
One of the photo albums that was never released was fully illustrated with Salmygin’s pictures.
“The book was printed in French, German and English in 1989,” he says. “But our motherland didn’t want it.”
A scientist is holding a mutant fish from the cooler pond by the Chornobyl nuclear power plant. In 1992, the fish were used to feed minks at the farm built nearby. (Oleksandr Salmygin)
Salmygin also claims that his photographs illustrate the national Chornobyl museum in Kyiv, but there are few that carry his name.
“We worked together for some time, but he has never given us any negatives or photographs,” says Anna Korolevska, deputy director of the Kyiv Chornobyl museum when she hears about Salmygim.
“He pointed out some photos that he said were his, and said many photographs had been stolen from him, but had no proof of his words.”
Yet there are many references on the Internet to Salmygin, the Chornobyl photographer. He says he has seen his own pictures printed under other names, but doesn’t have the money to file lawsuits.
“Everything gets forgotten sooner or later, and now it’s time for the Chornobyl tragedy [to be forgotten],” he says sorrowfully.
He shakes his head, and looks down as he talks about his former colleagues, including photographers and journalists, who used to work in Chornobyl. He says for years after the accident, they got together on April 26 to commemorate it.
But no one calls him anymore.
“No one checked for me. They might think I am already dead,” he says with a bitter smile on his face.
Salmygin says he expects no gratitude or recognition for his work, and even laughs at the notion. “I just did my job. My work was in great demand, and I did it with pleasure,” he says.
Kyiv Post staff writer Daryna Shevchenko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org