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ExposureKazuma Obara

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From Slavútych to Chernobyl: round trip

Rubén Ángel Arias

Contenido disponible también en español

Kazuma Obara’s backgrounds are clarifying. He can boast about being the first photographer in having access to the nuclear power station of Fukushima after the 2011 tsunami. Same predisposition in highlighting calamities’ portrait is in the essence of its Silent Histories (2014), a work on the consequences of the Second World War in Japan. Its task seem to be based on three ideas or phases of a same critical awareness: this happent, it was terrible and we should never forget, as forgetful as humankind’s memory is.

Exposure comes with an unbroken seal from the shop with the appearance of a photo printing envelope. The cover is red and contains arabic numbers and Russian letters (I don’t know Russian, don’t know if Obara knows it, the title is in English, like all the texts included).

Once opened, we find a serie of pictures black and white, all squared and non-bleed (except two, that go full bleed) and more or less fogged, dirty or ghostly. There’s no need to read the texts that come interspersed to follow the hints and discover the referent. Abandoned houses, flawed walls and debris are plentiful until we reach the first picture, double page where we can distinguish the unmistakable landscape of Prípiat: a city taken by the forest (Nature remains indifferent to our debts and pains, she goes on, where she can, without major effort, because yes. We all know this by heart, as well as Obara’s sceneries).

Texts included are a Shevchenko poem, the testimony —in three parts— of the same individual, Mariia, plus an explanatory note from the author in which he resumes the story of the book. And indeed the story is that Obara meets Mariia and tells her to narrate her life.

Mariia’s parents were living in Kiev when the reactor number four in the Chernobyl nuclear power station did its part to show worldwide its radioactive abilities.

She was born five months after the accident, and with the birth came the childhood that in her case was, above all, a painful path: the weakness, the tiredness, the insomnia, the trembling and panic attacks crewed the young ship. She has been in torment until doctors discovered that the harm came from thyroid, this gland that eats iodine and consume radiation as if it was good and it likes it. Maria’s thyroid was in a similar state than Obara’s pictures. Her body has begun to devour itself. And is this kind of rite of passage that provides with depth and roughness this work that, strictly visually, abounds in predictable —because they are stereotypes— images of devastation and abandonment chernobilesco.  

Mariia devotes herself to what we call (in honor of Joan Didion) magic thinking. She believes that her body can’t kill her, as it’s not as fool as to go against itself, or that she can’t die if she is operated on his birthday date. Why? She answers: for poetic justice.

She is operated, she is now twenty four years old. Once out from the operating room she feels like she wears a new body for the first time, she doesn’t recognize herself in it, it’s hot and it comes from the inside. The novelty absorbes it all. Later she will only remember the room full with flowers. Medicine has found a new substitute for his thyroid gland in the shape of, at least, ten pills daily and the burocracy needed to get them. Thanks to this treatment, she doesn’t seem ill. Indeed, she needs to remind it to people meeting her, which triggers an endless number of uncomfortable situations.

Currently, Maria paints and says to have found certain release in it. The end of her testimony oozes out hope and innocence, it’s hard to decide, it’s —also— difficult to believe.

However, in Exposure there are more things to see. Obara has included four (it’s boring to count , but somebody must do it) copies of his photos’ negatives. Negatives that were found around Chernobyl (he doesn’t clarify where exactly; in a house, in a shop?) and the ones with which he did the photos we can see and they are, due to the effect of radiation and time, overexposed, hence the title. The idea of including pseudo-objects in the books is a cleverness that collaborates with the trompe l’oeil that, at least in this case, is offered to the reader. With it, the author wants to foster a more material  and less literary experience from his book.

For its part, Everlasting is a book in a landscape format whose cover imitates the paper covering one of the main character’s room. Thus, we enter the domestic land and its routines.

Precisely two are the connecting threads in this second part of Obara’s project. On one side, a train, the one travelling from Slavútych to Chernobyl. (The city of Slavútuych has begun to be built scarcely months after the Chernobyl accident, pretending to be home to the majority of people evacuated of Prípiat, as well as workers from the central power station. On the other side, the familiy album of the Pasha’s. A family settled in Slavútuych whose lives are related to surveillance, cleaning and removal tasks of Chernobyl waste. Obama has interspersed separate copies of some snapshots of the mentioned album.

Between the family photos and the ones that Obara did in and from the train, there are several archive images —from Prípiat, from the central, from the accident—, harmed negative’s reproductions and two-pages spread in black. The pictures of the family saga —three generations— continues going on in chronological order, same for testimonies. In them, descriptions of monotony and risk of their labours still going on in the plant and nearby abound. Risk and monotony payed for 250 dollars per month for men. Women earn less. There’s no awareness of strikes or protests, nor signs of improvement. Nareshka (n.1990), Pasha’s wife (n. 1987) to justifiy her decision to stay, refers to the worsening of the employment status in Ucrania.

In front of the regning concern: “this job is more or less guaranteed and it is stable”, she says. The dream for this couple is to start a family. They have just had a child, the paper garnishing the wall of his room is —we discovered that in one of the pictures— the one that Obara chose for the cover of the book. In Slavútych, when one turns fifty years old they are all retired, and that’s, for his inhabitants, the best of promises.

Since I still don’t know anything about Russian, I don’t know what’s on the facsimile of the newspaper of the 26th April of 1986, which Obara decided to include, too. I assume he wanted to lead people to believe that there’s no news of the reactor explosion. However, the only thing that’s clear is that there’s no image of the accident.  

So far the inventory of the materials in which consists the triptych of the japanese photographer. A work that, in brief, comes back to what is already known and many times pointed out: the obfuscation around the Chernobyl accident and the so long “stole of dead albas”[^1] that came after. In front of Exposure and Everlasting, the questions that we must ask ourselves are not the most flattering for this kind of proposals in which good intentions — humanitarian intentions— are presented in the tight and predictable corset of the artistic ambitions.

[^1] Last words of “Amanecer”, a poem by Roberto Bolaño, included in La universidad desconocida.

After the images in situ of Igor Kostin and the documentaries in which he participated himself, or after the overwhelming book of testimonies compilated by Svetlana Aleiksévich, which other representation of the catastrophe and its consequences can deserve our attention? Is Chernobyl a worn out topic? When does a topic tires out, and why? And, lastly, a question perhaps more stimulating, can photography offer us an unusual angle of that experience? I am referring to an angle, or interpretation capable to move the collective imagination which on Chernóbil seems to be definitely solidified.  

Obara has documented the consequences of Chernobyl in two books and an apendix in which he hybridizes documentary photography aims with ambitions and own occurrences of art that boasts of concept. However, in spite of the extra sofistication that adds not only the process by which the author has got the images, but the inclusion of copies and facsimiles, the final result comes up with two flagrant weaknesses. Furthermore, the story supporting them obeys only to schematism of melodramas with a more or less hopeful ending, towards which the most sensationalist journalism tends.

Obara has made use of Chernobyl and the moving testimonies of the victims, and has increased his work this way, but this doesn’t add anything new to comprehension —or abism— of what happent and still happens there.  

How to cite:
ARIAS, Rubén Ángel, “From Slavútych to Chernobyl: round trip”, LUR, 12th Novembre of 2019, https://e-lur.net/biblioteca/exposure-eng


Translation by Núria Durán Romero