CHERNOBYL: RUINED | FORBIDDEN LANDSCAPE
Lens Magazine|February 2021
AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH PIERPAOLO MITTICA
It is a pleasure to feature an exclusive interview with Pierpaolo Mittica, an award-winning Italian photographer and filmmaker who devotes his work to the human and environmental aspects of Chernobyl.

His unique photography work has been featured in many international publications, including The Telegraph, The Guardian, Asian Geo, National Geographic U.S.A. l'Espresso, Internazionale, Alias del Manifesto, Vogue Italia, Corriere Della Sera, Repubblica, Panorama, Il Sole 24 ore, Oggi, Le Scienze, Vanity Fair, Photo magazine, Daylight Magazine, Days Japan International, The Asahi Shimbun, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Spiegel, Wired U.S.A., and China Newsweek.

He is co-author with Alessandro Tesei and Michele Marcolin of two documentary movies: Living Toxic, Russia (Produced by Sydonia, 2014) and Behind the Urals (Produced by Mondo in Cammino, 2015).

The films were broadcast on many media and news channels, including at Al Jazeera Documentary Channel (MENA - the Middle East & North Africa) and Discovery Channel, U.S.A., amongst others.

In his studying years for the Master's Program at C.R.A.F. diploma in conservation and the history of photography, he enjoyed the company of influential photographers such as Charles – Henri Favrod, Naomi Rosenblum, and Walter Rosenblum who is a spiritual father in photography.

In this interview, we discuss his creative, most exciting projects, all focus on the Chernobyl disaster and its effect on the people and the land.

LENS MAGAZINE: Thank you, Pierpaolo, for this interview! Your projects are so unique and impressive. Let's start from the beginning; why Chernobyl? How did you begin this project? Where the inspiration came from? This is an unusual project and not always a comfortable subject for the viewer to deal with.

PIERPAOLO MITTICA: First of all, my knowledge about the Chernobyl exclusion zone began years ago, in 2001, when I met the president of an Italian N.G.O. who brings Chernobyl children in Italy for recovery vacations. She told me about Belarus's contamination situation (Belarus is the most contaminated land by Chernobyl accident, 70% of its territory is contaminated). I was really impressed by the story, so in 2002 I started to document the consequences of Chernobyl.

From then I went inside the Zone and in the contaminated lands around the exclusion zone more than 20 times. I started documenting the consequences of Chernobyl in 2002, and In 2007 I finished my first project about Chernobyl that was published in a book named Chernobyl the hidden legacy edited in 3 editions, one in Great Britain (Trolley Books), one in Spain (Ellago Ediciones) and one in Japan (Kashiwa Shobo), focused on Chernobyl legacy.

Meanwhile, In the last 6 years, I focused my attention more on some not well-known stories inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone. The more you go inside a place, and more you discover particular unknown stories that, for me, deserved some attention. Frequenting the Chernobyl exclusion zone for so many years makes me confident with many people living there.

I became dear friends with many of them, especially my guide, Yuriy Tatarchuck that guided me for so many years, from 2003 till today. Thanks to him and the local people I met, I discovered those not well-known aspects of the Chernobyl exclusion zone like the stalkers, the Hasidic Jews, the recycling of radioactive metals, and Chernobyl's life City, etc. and get in touch with them. So I started a new photographic project about Chernobyl divided into chapters and titled Chernobyl Stories that I just finished after 6 years of work.

L.M.: In your series of work, CHERNOBYL 35 YEARS AFTER. You are documenting the results of the Chernobyl disaster (A nuclear accident that occurred on Saturday, April 26, 1986, at the No. 4 reactors in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near the city of Pripyat in the north of the Ukrainian S.S.R. It is considered the worst nuclear disaster in history, which blighted the lives of millions of people.) Didn't you feel uncomfortable spending time there?

P.M.: The Chernobyl exclusion zone is a really particular place permeated by a tragic story and contaminated by radiation. I never feel uncomfortable there because I was motivated to give voice to the people who were suffering due to the Chernobyl accident.

Furthermore, Chernobyl's life is an incredible way of living because it is normal life in a totally abnormal situation. The city is inside an exclusion zone. But as you visit there in Chernobyl City, you see a distinct area that looks like any other small city in Ukraine, and people live normal everyday life.

The town of Chernobyl, located within the exclusion zone and 16 km from the exploded reactor, is the main center of daily life in the area. Before the incident, it was home to 16 thousand people; today, four thousand reside there. Most of them work in the local area, all linked somehow to the power plant, but not all of them. In fact, the town of Chernobyl is still home to some Samosely, so-called self settlers who resisted evacuation from the area and remained or returned to live out their lives. People such as the painter Leonid, now famous as The painter of Chernobyl, or Mihail, the music teacher at the school in Chernobyl before the incident and now a pensioner.

The other inhabitants of this strange town are the administrative offices' staff, workers involved in the disposal of radioactive material, the guards and military that control the area, firefighters, and local police. But above all, the personnel (around 2000 of them) who each day ensure the Chernobyl nuclear plant's safety, at least until 2065, the year in which the decommissioning work on the reactors will begin.

In the town, there are four markets, some bars, a canteen, and life goes as normal. And that feeling of normality struck me in those years of my stay in Chernobyl City, and for this reason, I started to document the normal life in the city of Chernobyl. In the past 19 years, I was inside the exclusion zone more than 20 times, and I knew practically all the city inhabitants. I was in their homes, eating and drinking with them, hearing their stories, enjoying their company, and they are so gentle that we became dear friends with many of them.

Life looks normal inside the Zone, but we must always keep in mind that the people here live in one of the most contaminated spots on the planet, with all the consequences they have to face.

Amid the radiation, a normal life flows, like in any other Ukraine city, except that there is an exclusion zone here, that radiations are still high, and the contamination will remain for millennia. Normal life in a totally abnormal place.

L.M.: In your documentary work, you cover the life in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, where more than 8000 people are part of the community, live and work inside the area within 30 kilometers radius. What impression did you have of the people that returned to their homes, considered today as 'The last elderly people living in the zone' after their evacuation in 1986?

P.M.: Life for the people is totally different in the villages inside the exclusion zone because now most of them are inhabited by only a few elderly people and lie abandoned. At the time, in 1986, 116 thousand people were evacuated and transferred to the big cities' outskirts.

The area was too contaminated to allow the population to live there. But some, about 1200 people, decided that life in cities was not for them, too difficult to survive with poor wages and without the garden's products. And above all, they have a too strong bond with their land for abandoning it forever.

After few months of forced evacuation, they came back to live in their homes, challenging the ban of the Soviet government. Some of them even never went away. Life is very hard for them.

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