In 2019, Andrea Basteris (@andreabasteris) travelled to northern Ukraine to visit a place few people would dare to go; inside the Exclusion Zone at the centre of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site. Here, she witnessed a place where time has stood still. Preserved in this heavily restricted area is the evidence of the lives left behind after the worst nuclear disaster the world had ever seen.
In her series Life in the Half Life, Andrea gives us terrifying insight into the long-term consequences of the nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl Power Station - the first disaster ever to be rated at 'seven', the maximum severity on the International Nuclear Event Scale. The aftermath of the disaster was catastrophic causing the deaths of thousands of people and the disease of millions more. It unleashed vast amounts of highly radioactive material into the atmosphere that was then carried by winds across Europe contaminating millions of acres of forest and farmland - The effects of this will still be felt in many, many years to come.
Andrea takes us on a voyage back in time to the moment hundreds of thousands of people were displaced by this deadly accident; forced to flee their homes, towns and villages, to escape an invisible and insidious enemy - nuclear radiation.
Early one April morning in 1986 an experiment gone-wrong caused one of the nuclear reactors at Chernobyl power station to explode triggering a partial meltdown. On that fateful morning the inhabitants of Pripyat and surrounding villages were unaware their lives were about to change forever.
Pripyat is the closest city to the Chernobyl power station located just a few miles away. It was a thriving city with a population of almost 50,000 with an average age between 26-35. Home to many young families and children, Pripyat seemed set for a promising future, however, today it is a 'ghost-town', almost totally devoid of life. Andrea's photo series documents this abandoned city. Images of sulphur-yellow hazard signs against colossal, rusted radar structures and soviet era gas masks scattered amongst everyday household items - these desolate photos are interspersed with glimpses of the joyous place it once was. A ferris wheel stands majestically in an abandoned fairground, school classrooms littered with textbook pages and decaying gymnasiums strewn with debris all once would have been filled with the echoing roar of children's laughter.
Despite growing up on the other side of the planet, Andrea has always felt a connection to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Coincidentally the disaster took place in the same year she was born---1986---and it is this serendipity that drew her to the hospitals and maternity wards of Pripyat. One of the most chilling photos of all, captioned Nuclear Births shows rows of tiny cots that once held the last babies born in Pripyat before being snatched from their beds as the city was swiftly evacuated.
Andrea sees through her lens otherworldly scenes as tree branches burst through the windows of abandoned buildings. Even in the wake of such devastation; nature reigns. The room's interiors attest to the ravages of time as layers of paint peel off the walls like dead skin, as if suffering the same slow agony of the worst affected victims of exposure to extreme radiation.
Even now, 36 years later, much of the area is dangerously radioactive and clean up of the site is scheduled for completion by 2065, almost 80 years after the event. Despite these still very dangerous levels of radiation, a few senior residents remain within the Exclusion Zone refusing to leave their ancestral homes. Andrea visited Kupovate, a small village south of the disaster site, where she met some of the 'babushkas' who have returned despite the risk to their health.
These fierce women live closely with nature. They grow their own food and share the toxic land with an abundance of wildlife, including grey wolves that now thrive in the absence of human activity. At first sight their lives seem ordinary - their simple homes are full of colourful blankets and tapestries, their faces brandished with a proud and resilient smile. However, an invisible enemy is always present.
Through her photo story Life in the Half Life, Andrea aims to show the current state of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that has persisted as long as she has been alive. Using the power of the photograph to take her audience to somewhere that would otherwise be unseen, she brings awareness to the tragic consequences that nuclear radiation can inflict on the environment and human health, affecting not only a huge geographical area but also spanning across a large expanse of time.
33 years on, Andrea shows a landscape still reeling from the invisible horror. Many scientists predict the area will remain uninhabitable for an astonishing 20,000 years.
With the advancement of nuclear weapons technology in the global arms race, the threat of nuclear war is something that cannot be ignored and, especially in light of the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, realising the potential consequences of a nuclear attack is becoming increasingly more crucial. Another disaster like Chernobyl has the potential to change the world forever.
Andrea Basteris (@andreabasteris) is a London based photographer and artist, trained at the International Centre of Photography in New York. Her work documents and examines the extremities and shifting identities of humanity. Basteris has exhibited previously in galleries in New York, Hong Kong, Mexico City, London and Dublin. Commercially, Andrea is a contributor for Vogue Italy and a portrait and documentarian photographer. You can see more of her work by visiting her website or instagram.