"To the world, Chernobyl and Fukushima seem like dangerous places, but for the people who live there, that danger is simply a fact of life," says photojournalist Michael Forster Rothbart, who spent two years cataloging the lives of people living in the shadow of nuclear accidents. These images are the result.
"Most photojournalists distort Chernobyl. They visit briefly, expecting danger and despair, and come away with photos of deformed children and abandoned buildings," Forster Rothbart says in his new book, Would You Stay? "This sensationalist approach obscures more complex stories about how displaced communities adapt and survive."
Forster Rothbart's book is about the relative normalcy of people's lives near Chernobyl and Fukushima. But he does find a lot of danger and despair, of course. Would You Stay? is full of people living with cancer. The towns around Chernobyl are depressed, and lacking opportunity. Young people leave if they get the chance. Many of the residents are older, with more invested in the area. In Fukushima, where the disaster happened more recently, people are living in a state of limbo, not knowing when, or if, they might be able to return to their homes.
Authorities ringed Chernobyl with four zones following the 1986 nuclear disaster. Nearest the site is the Exclusion Zone, where people are not supposed to live at all (though about 400 “self-settlers” do, and there's all kinds of "smuggling, research, farming, tourism, poaching" going on, Forster Rothbart says). Then come three further zones where "evacuation was merely encouraged, not mandatory." They contain 2,293 villages with about 1.6 million inhabitants.
Up to 3,800 people still work at the Chernobyl plant, "not doing very much." The site, which had three other reactors, stopped producing electricity in 2000. But workers have to stay while decommissioning is completed—a process that could take years due to chronic under-funding.
Forster Rothbart has seen the effects of environmental damage in Bhopal, India, Azerbaijan, and the Canadian Arctic. What separates Chernobyl and Fukushima, he says, is the insidiousness of the contamination. Nobody quite knows how it will affect them:
"When your home gets washed away, the damage you see is immediate and obvious," he says. "When you are hit by radiation, the consequences are never so clear. It’s all a game of probabilities. How much? How dangerous? How soon will it affect me?"
The people living around Chernobyl are still unsure about the risks 27 years after the fact. And now the same thing is happening Fukushima, though residents have access to daily radiation reports:
Says Forster Rothbart: "What I saw in Fukushima is that many evacuees are living in a state of limbo, still staying in temporary housing, waiting to learn if they’ll be able to return home, waiting for more answers that never seem to come."