COLUMBIA — When you walk through the glass doors of the McDougall Center at MU, you walk into history. Photographs showing the results of nuclear catastrophe cover the walls. "The Long Shadow of Chernobyl," the name of German photojournalist Gerd Ludwig's exhibition as well as his 2014 book, is in Columbia.
Ludwig, who also calls himself a documentary photographer, has worked on the Chernobyl project for 20 years. He is one of nine people and organizations who will receive this year's Missouri Honor Medal from the Missouri School of Journalism.
Because of a sudden death in his family, Ludwig was not able to give an interview to the Missourian, but he responded to questions by providing answers he has given in previous interviews.
Chernobyl is a city in northern Ukraine. On April 26, 1986, an explosion happened at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
"The Chernobyl accident in 1986 was the result of a flawed reactor design that was operated with inadequately trained personnel. The resulting steam explosion and fires released at least 5% of the radioactive reactor core into the atmosphere," says the World Nuclear Association's website.
In 1993, Ludwig was assigned to cover pollution in the post-Soviet republics for National Geographic and decided to include Chernobyl in the story.
“It was only supposed to be a small segment, but it ended up being a story in itself,” Ludwig told Vice Germany. “I began to develop a deeper interest in Chernobyl as a subject, and I knew I'd have to return. It actually took me 11 years to go back. I returned in 2005, 2011 and 2013, for an extended period of time."
Ludwig made nine visits to Chernobyl, documenting the lives of victims, the Exclusion Zone, the abandoned city of Pripyat and destroyed reactor No. 4.
Ludwig recalled his first visit to the nuclear plant in the Vice Germany interview.
He told Vice Germany he spent about four weeks doing research and preparing himself for the trip, and armed with protective gear including gas masks, dosimeters and Geiger counters — which measure radiation levels — boot covers and protective overalls, he arrived at Exclusion Zone in 1993. But once he was there, officials asked him not to wear any of his protective gear, “so as not to scare people who worked there without any."
“When I visited the graveyard of Pripyat — a highly contaminated area — or returnees at their homes, I wasn't wearing any protection," he told Vice Germany. "As a photographer, you walk a fine line and you need people's cooperation to get the job done. In Chernobyl, I ate eggs, fish and potatoes that were all produced in the contaminated zone. I was concerned, but I wasn't really scared.”
David Rees is chairman of the MU photojournalism faculty that championed Ludwig's nomination to be an honor medal recipient. Ludwig's name made the list not only for his Chernobyl project, Rees said.
“This year we really wanted to have someone who represented environmental photojournalism because we have a number of students interested in reporting on the environment,” he said. “And when we got to that notion, that kind of general concept, Gerd Ludwig’s name came up, and everyone really endorsed him — because of the still (photography) work he has done, not just Chernobyl but other environmental work he has done.”
At the McDougall Center, a TV screen on the wall plays Ludwig's video of the nuclear disaster's aftermath. The video is a compilation of Ludwig's photos, largely different from the ones that hang on the gallery walls.
“These images remind us that accidents like Chernobyl are a possible outcome of nuclear power — anytime, anywhere. I want my project to stand as an all encompassing document of this man-made disaster — to remember the countless victims of Chernobyl and to warn future generations of the deadly consequences of human hubris,” he told National Geographic.
Visitors to the exhibition may look through Ludwig's book, "The Long Shadow of Chernobyl," which was recognized as the best book in the 2014 Pictures of the Year competition. All photos shown in the McDougall Center are from this book. The exhibit will be on display through Oct. 29. The gallery is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday.
The decision to focus the Ludwig exhibition on his Chernobyl work was intentional. "Which I think makes a lot of sense as it is such a timely topic," Rees said. "And by having one topic in the small gallery, we are able to get more depth.”
In addition to Ludwig, the 2015 Missouri Honor Medalists are CNN Digital, CBS News correspondent Bill Plante, author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich, Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, The New York Review of Books publisher Rea Hederman, The Marcus Graham Project co-founder Lincoln Stephens, copy editor Merrill Perlman and the Sports Journalism Institute.
The honor medalists will meet with students and give master classes while they are in Columbia. Ludwig's class, "Winds of Change," is scheduled for 1 to 1:50 p.m. Monday in the Fred W. Smith Forum, Reynolds Journalism Institute. A full schedule accompanies this article.
“I think that the whole idea of having the Missouri Honor Medalist come to campus, spend time with students, and for us to be able to have his work exhibited under his presence ... is to extend the education mission of the school,” Rees said. "So students, beyond seeing the work online or seeing it in the book, are actually able to reach out and touch the person and talk with him one on one.”
Ludwig said he feels incredibly humbled to receive the honor medal. “This honor means encouragement and obligation to continue the path of pursuing issue-driven journalism,” he wrote in an email.
He shared this bit of advice with students interested in studying photojournalism: “A great photograph touches the soul and broadens the mind.”
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