Donald Weber’s Bastard Eden, Our Chernobyl, his Photolucida 2006 Critical Massbook is a scary look at what could be our potential post-Nuclear Holecast civilization. It is also about a marginalized society and the reclamation of the land.
Weber’s photographic documentary project is the no-man’s land of the region surrounding Chernobyl (Ukraine), where 20 years ago in 1986, a nuclear reactor went really bad. The result was a 40-kilometer Exclusion Zone, where people are not permitted to enter. But they do enter and some have now chosen this area to become their home, for them and their families. Thus Weber’s question:
What was daily life actually like, in a post-nuclear world?
A post-nuclear world could be the result of the nuclear arms war going to the ultimate gamesmanship, where all of the buttons were pushed for the wrong reasons, or as in this case, nuclear reactors malfunctioning. In the first instance, as we know from the end of World War II, a nuclear war will probably clear the landscape pretty much clean, with very little remaining. In the latter, most everything remains intact with only the redioactive traces creating the issues. The latter is also the landscape of Chernobyl, silent but yet potentially deadly.
And so what results?
Nature abhors a vacuum, and since the trees, plants and most of the landscape remains intact, the wildlife are the first to re-claim the land. The rabbits, boars and deer are wild game for those people who exist on the fringe of this region, and over time, these hunters have slowly ventured further and further into this no-man’s land. Eventually people began to become squatters, taking residence in the empty and abandoned houses and buildings, to claim them as their own.
But who would knowingly choose such a dangerous location to establish a home and raise a family? Probably much like the squatters who exist through out the world, those who survive on the marginal edges of our society. And so this society evolves, functioning somewhat similar, but also in many ways very differently, that those outside this small region. In most of Weber’s photographs, you would not realize that these photographs are made in such a potentially dangerous place. Children are at school or playing at home, acting out as they do everywhere.
There are also hints of a darker side, perhaps not directly correlated with the area, but about those who would chose this place over a much safer location. Weber captures the isolation and aspects of a dysfunctional society, who are still striving to survive. Of individuals who are captured and held here because of the choices of others, such as the children of parents who have decided to bring their families here. We do not know what their other living options are, but the body language within many of his photographs does create a message about their isolation and despair. Yet, family bonds and values are still strong even in the face of such a bleak situation, and where there are plenty of potatoes and vodka and wild game to hunt.
Is it just me, or is there chance that those eyes of the lone man leaning on the snow covered shed (below) reminds you of Jack Nicholson’s character in the Shining? There is something sinister and malevolent in those hooded eyes as they connect with me. Is he anomaly in this region, or does he represent what we all might become under these same circumstances?
I believe that there is yet another theme that runs through Weber’s book, and best illustrated by one of the last photographs in his book, that of the urban landscape photograph, below. The desolate urban landscape, dark, cold and foreboding, but with the sun peaking out from the tall structuresand the slender shaft of sunlight spreading over the snow covered foreground. To me, it speaks of Hope. And Hope held by the people in Chernobyl for a safe and prosperous life, and thus Hope for mankind in the face of such an ominous potential.
These are searing documentary photographs.
The 8 1/2″ x 10″ softbound book is 64 pages with 62 photographs, and was printed in Hong Kong. The book is accompanied with a text by Larry Frolick.
Update from Larry Frolick, off-line I received the following comment:
Hi Douglas! I read your review of Bastard Eden with interest. As Don Weber’s collaborator from the writing side, I have travelled with him through a number of desolated landscapes including the uncountry of Kurdistan that covers the remotest parts of Syria, Turkey and . The enclosed comix, Kebabistan, was drawn by Steve Wilson, and written by me about our adventures at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003. Don waded into the thick of knife fights in the grubby streets, massed tanks, mad farmers and unhappy GI’s, right into the shit of war and the craziness it brings to everyone within range of the guns.
Who is not in range of the long guns of today? That’s the question we try to answer in Bastard Eden. People try to live normalno, as they say here — but then this thing from nowhere keeps coming and knocking things into another dimension.
That’s what we discovered about these people living in the abandoned Chernobyl region in Ukraine. They are living in a past-less place; whatever it was, this thing has come and gone, taking what it wanted and leaving people to their post-atomic existence. For us, as two investigators of the silent crimes of history, this story is not about the failure of technology — or about the limits of human imagination.
It’s about the randomness of a nonhuman Power.
Is this Power evil, as our cartoon story suggests? Is it stronger than us? We don’t know. We watch the Chernobyl hunters snare wild rabbits for supper and their wives pick radioactive raspberries, and we think:
Life goes on, despite everything that can be thrown at it.
By Douglas Stockdale