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Where Activism and Art Converge

Debbie Baker, who was pregnant during the Three Mile Island nuclear leak, with her son, born with Down Syndrome, and photographed by James Lerager, whose work is in the BC Space show.

Debbie Baker, who was pregnant during the Three Mile Island nuclear leak, with her son, born with Down Syndrome, and photographed by James Lerager, whose work is in the BC Space show.

By Daniella Walsh

A black and white photograph focuses on a mother reading to her son. The caption under the image by photojournalist and author James Lerager identifies the woman as Debbie Baker, one of the countless “downwinders” affected by the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear explosion. She blamed her son’s Down syndrome on radio-active fallout and sued the power company for damages. She won a financial settlement that came with a price: her silence. She, like other plaintiffs in Pennsylvania, agreed not to discuss the case publicly.

The powerful close-up is part of the current exhibition at Laguna Beach’s BC Space Gallery titled “Silent but Deadly: Chernobyl-Fukishima-San Onofre.”

Organized by gallery owner Mark Chamberlain, the show sheds light on the dangerous and, at times, deadly presence of nuclear plants scattered throughout the globe. “We have had the historic crisis in Chernobyl and past situations in this country and the most recent disaster in Fukishima and now face the question what to do with the radioactive leftovers at San Onofre. From that point of view, this show is timely indeed,” he said. “It is a time to repeat ‘never again‘ and put full effort into alternative energy.”

Photographer James Lerager likened his image of a child born with birth defects after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster to Madonna and child iconography, but with a horrible modern twist. His work is in the BC Space show.

Photographer James Lerager likened his image of a child born with birth defects after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster to Madonna and child iconography, but with a horrible modern twist. His work is in the BC Space show.

The majority of images on display through April 26 capture scenes from Ukraine’s Chernobyl and Japan’s Fukushima, with a few of Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island and California’s San Onofre. Kei Kobayashi, Ed Heckerman, Ron Azevedo and Lerager shot the work, which are displayed along with video by Japanese journalist Jun Hori.

Hori’s full-length documentary “Metamorphosis” will premiere at the gallery at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 11, at 235 Forest Ave. Ninety minutes long, the film shows the transformation of a rural, food producing area largely abandoned due to destruction of the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear plant by the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

“Silent but Deadly…” centers on the idea that affected areas appear to have survived and recovered from nuclear disasters but that large amounts of radio activity still pose a danger and will continue to do so for decades to come. Devastations manifest themselves in genetic damages, chronic illnesses and vaguely reported deaths, all shrouded in official secrecy. Chamberlain and Larager say that there are 400 nuclear power reactors in the world with 100 in the United States.

Larager’s Chernobyl photographs, made on a visit on the disaster’s fifth anniversary, are starkly noir, beginning with the second Chernobyl sarcophagus around Reactor Four. He reports that 600,000 workers, known as “liquidators” and now dead or with fates unknown, built the first sarcophagus in a highly radio active setting and, even though the structure was to last decades, began disintegrating shortly after. The second, built to cover the first one, is scheduled to be finished next year.

Larager pulls no punches with a 1991 portrait of a Ukrainian nurse holding a little girl born with missing and partial limbs. “I saw it as a horrific aberration of a Madonna and child icon,” he said.

He also authored “In the Shadow of the Cloud: Photographs and Histories of America’s Atomic Veterans,” a book chronicling the lives of military personnel involved in atomic testing in Nevada, New Mexico and the Pacific. “In 200 U.S. nuclear tests, 350,000 soldiers were exposed to radiation,” he said.

Also shot in black and white, Kobayashi’s photographs of the outwardly peaceful countryside, including a roadside memorial shrouded in fog, belie the turmoil after the Fukushima catastrophes and their aftermath. Each photograph is captioned with its location and radiation levels at the time it was taken.

“Ghosts of Pripyat, Ukraine (Chernobyl)” by Ron Azevedo is a digitally enhanced photograph that gives an abandoned Ferris wheel an otherworldly ambience. Despite its deceptive beauty, children’s ghosts in the faded yellow gondolas come to mind.

“We tried to balance the show’s impact by including stark images to convey messages but to also maintain a sense of optimism and hope throughout,” said Chamberlain.

That message comes across in Ed Heckerman’s series of photograms titled “Globac: A Prayer for Japan.” Created from different strains of rice sent to him from Japan, the circular forms allude to offerings placed on Buddhist altars. A practicing Buddhist, Heckerman said: “It’s like giving a picture rather than taking one.” He explained that the lightest circles were made from pure rice while the subtly darkening ones from manipulated grains, leaving the implied symbolism to observers. “In light of Japan’s natural and nuclear disaster, it would be proper to offer such a prayer,” he said.

Chamberlain explained that this show is even more than usual in keeping with the gallery’s reputation as the place where activism and art converge. “None of the work is for sale. It’s strictly meant for display and education,” he said.

 

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