In the early 1990s, California-based photographer Gerd Ludwig documented the devastating effects of pollution in the former Soviet Union – in places where few photographers have been permitted before or since. Carolyn Weaver has the story of a photographer’s art, and the indelible images he captured in a broken empire.
German-born photographer Gerd Ludwig lives in Los Angeles, and works out of his huge concrete house built into the side of a canyon. But that’s only his home base. He spends weeks at a time in remote places on shoots for National Geographic and other magazines.
The hours are long, from sunrise to well past midnight, and the conditions can be uncomfortable, even dangerous. In Siberia, for example, his camera froze and he suffered frostbite on a couple of fingers. But to Mr. Ludwig, the work is worth the hardships.
“I’m a very curious person, and the camera is like an introduction into places where I normally would not be allowed, and not necessarily welcome without the cause that I’m presenting,” he said in an interview. “And I also think that a lot of photographers are, deep inside, very shy people. I wouldn’t dare to go to my neighbor and say, ‘Look, I would like to sit here for a day and just watch how you spend your day.”
National Geographic photographers are famous for their skill, and their eye in documenting the world. Yet Gerd Ludwig is one of those also celebrated as an artist, whose images are both beautiful and intensely humane.
When he went back to the former Soviet Union to shoot for National Geographic in the early 1990s, he became the first to photograph environmental catastrophes that the former regime had suppressed from public view. For seven decades, indiscriminate oil drilling and mining, industry, nuclear programs and huge civil engineering projects laid waste to the land.
In Kazahkstan, Gerd Ludwig photographed a former fishing harbor on the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth-largest inland sea. It began to die in the 1960s after the government diverted feeder rivers to irrigate crops.
In Estonia, he photographed his assistant, wearing a protective suit like an astronaut’s, outside the Baltic Sea town of Sillamae, where the land resembles a moonscape. Radiation from an old nuclear weapons plant is so high in the area that a Geiger counter can’t measure it. In Russia, Gerd Ludwig captured an image of children at play on a verdant meadow invisibly contaminated by plutonium from another weapons plant.
As the father of a young son, Gerd Ludwig says, he often thought of how the ruin he was photographing could hit home. “We have to be aware that pollution knows no borders,” he says. “Pollution travels across borders worldwide.”
Some of the most wrenching pictures were taken near another nuclear site, in Kazahkstan. “In the early days, children were lined up in front of the schoolhouses to see the nuclear mushrooms go up,” Mr. Ludwig says. “That, of course, led to a number of diseases that you don’t find typically amongst children.”
One photograph is of a small child being tested for brain diseases. Electrodes sprout from the child’s head, incongruously reflected in a small mirror framed by crimson curtains. Gerd Ludwig says the homey décor is meant to ease the child’s fear about the procedure.
Another child he photographed in the area, blind and deaf from birth, is seen crouching on the ground outside his home. His bulging head make the photograph almost like a science fiction nightmare. Yet like all of Mr. Ludwig’s photographs, tenderness and fellow-feeling somehow mitigate the horror. “This child was actually born on the nuclear testing site in Semipalatinsk,” he says.
Gerd Ludwig’s subjects in the former Soviet Union are often children, those most vulnerable to toxics. In Ukraine, for example, in the years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, cases of baldness among children mystified doctors. And in two small Moscow neighborhoods, Gerd Ludwig photographed eight children, ranging in age from about 4 to 7, each born with a missing forearm, a defect that ordinarily happens only once in 500,000 births.
“For three months, I knew about this situation, but I thought how could I take a picture of this? To make it not fake, honest, and yet show clearly, in a compassionate way, the malformation of these children? As a photographer, I have to be aware that I increase people’s pain who are in a misfortunate situation," he says. "When I shoot any handicapped person, I single them out and I certainly increase their existing pain already. And because of that, I wanted to be as gentle as I could be - to show the beauty of the children and then the pain that we inflict on them through environmental causes.”
He says that with together with the mothers of the children, he arranged a party in a neighborhood center. After the children had played for a couple of hours, he began to photograph them. The photograph he ultimately published shows the children lined up against a bluish-green wall. As he says, when you first see the picture, you’re struck by the beauty of the children, and only then see their malformed arms. Gerd Ludwig’s photographs of Soviet pollution in have been exhibited in art galleries around the world. Together with happier images from the former Soviet Union they’re collected in a National Geographic Society book, The Broken Empire. Yet Mr. Ludwig says he didn’t shoot every image he encountered.
“It’s something that I think young photographers often don’t realize,” he says, “There are moments when you should just not take a picture, and I think there is an inner voice that tells you, don’t do it now, because there’s no use to show that situation, or it’s something that you would not want to be seen.”
Someone once said that poetry is “news that stays news.” The same could be said about Gerd Ludwig’s work. Yet he describes it with characteristic modestly, saying, “The greatest compliment a photographer can get is that somebody enjoys seeing the world through his eyes.”
Still photographs courtesy of Gerd Ludwig. On-location video courtesy of National Geographic.