April 26 marks the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, the worst nuclear power plant accident in history. Chernobyl and the nearby town of Pripyat, mostly abandoned shortly after the meltdown, have been extensively documented by photographers attracted to the pathos of vacant Soviet-era architecture. But Lisbon-based photojournalist Bruno Colaço has focused instead on the people left in the surrounding area. His series “From Chernobyl with Love” documents a Portuguese program, “Blue Summers,” (“Verão Azul”) supported by ACLIS, which sends Ukrainian children and teenagers to live with host families in Portugal for a month or two during the summer holidays. Writes Colaço, “I first came to know the “Blue Summer Project” in 2012 while covering a story for a Portuguese newspaper about the Ukrainian children that every year were coming to Portugal to spend a part of their school holidays. I spent a day with a Portuguese family who hosted two girls from [near] Chernobyl…and got to know their reality and problems regarding living near a radioactive contaminated area.” He felt an immediate connection to their story, and continued to document the project, eventually traveling to Ukraine photograph the children’s lives at home with their parents and at school. “These holidays were meant to open their horizons by putting them in contact with new experiences, but more important with a healthy environment and away from the radiation,” writes Colaço.
More than 50 people died in the immediate aftermath of 1986 disaster and as many as 9,000 more deaths are expected from diseases caused by radiation released into the environment. But, writes Colaço, the main problem in the area is the “poverty and isolation to which the region was condemned,” as people and jobs left, leaving the “thousands of families who remain in most cases living almost exclusively from what the contaminated land offers them.” According to a Ukrainian hospital, 85 percent of children living in the surrounding area suffer from chronic diseases, especially gastrointestinal and respiratory problems. In Colaço’s images, host families take their visiting children to the dentist and other medical specialists during their stay, knowing their own parents can’t afford treatments or that the equipment doesn’t exist back home.
Colaço says he has been inspired by the optimism of his subjects. “I was touched by the way people from that region in general could adapt and live in conditions that can be severe and harmful for them, and in the particular how children can always see everything with a smile in their face.”