THE MELTDOWN AT the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in northern Ukraine on April 26, 1986 was a massive tragedy that ultimately claimed at least 9,000 lives and affected millions more. It also created a toxic mess. Radioactive particles choked the atmosphere and rained down on cities, forests, and roads. In the immediate aftermath, fires had to be put out, debris cleared, contaminated waste buried deep underground.
It was, obviously, not an easy task. Remote-controlled bulldozers and other robots proved too weak for the job, their circuitry fried by radiation. So the Soviet Union sent in humans—600,000 of them. These brave firefighters, soldiers, janitors, and miners—the so-called “liquidators”—did everything from hosing down streets to felling trees to building a concrete sarcophagus around the exposed reactor … all the while charged subatomic particles ravaged their cells and shortened their life spans.
“No personal sacrifice was too much for these men and women,” says photographer Tom Skipp. Moved by their story, he visited Slavutych, Ukraine in April to photograph survivors, now in their golden years. The portraits make up his haunting series The Liquidators.
“The liquidators were sent into impossible scenarios where even machines failed,” Skipp says. “Each has a human story seemingly entangled in the complex history of communism and duty to the motherland.”
Originally, Skipp traveled from London, where he lives, to Ukraine to photograph an entirely different subject: people who sell their hair for extensions. But after learning he had accidentally booked his flight on the eve of the anniversary of the meltdown, he started reading about Chernobyl and discovered the liquidators. Before he knew it he was in Slavutych, a town of about 25,000 people some 30 miles from Chernobyl that was hastily constructed to house the nuclear plant’s workers and others displaced by the accident. “This was the last ‘Atomic city’ to be built before the USSR was dissolved,” Skipp says.
He spent two days there meeting with roughly a dozen former cleanup workers he found with the help of a local veteran’s society. Through a translator, they shared their stories. On average, the liquidators were exposed to 120 millisieverts of radiation, about 1,200 times the amount you get from a simple x-ray. In the years following the meltdown, more than 4,000 of them died from radiation-caused cancers, and another 70,000 were disabled by exposure. Still, the liquidators shared a steadfast sense of duty to their government and fellow citizens, even when they didn’t agree with the ruling system or found it difficult to talk about. “I think that there’s a certain amount of fear aligned with speaking out against any wrongdoings that were committed,” Skipp says. “Many live on a state pension.”
Skipp photographed the men and women with his Fujifilm GFX 50 in their homes, as well as at at a local museum dedicated to explaining the history of Chernobyl and Slavutych. Many of the portraits capture them standing proudly but solemnly before an image of the destroyed reactor and beneath a clock stopped at the exact time of the meltdown—the moment that defined their lives forever.