In 2009 I was approached by a Ukrainian magazine EGO for a feature interview. It’s a men’s magazine which was trying at the time to elevate its cultural level.
Have you ever considered developing a photo essay in Ukraine and in Chernobyl in particular?- was one of the interview questions. Although I was familiar with Chernobyl, and it appealed to my work on abandoned places, I had never considere it. I thought it was already too covered, and the images that came to mind were those of the accident and children with mutations. But I said: “If somebody were to help sponsor my time there and help me with logistics, I would go”.
Few days later they helped me to organize a trip. I was already planning to visit Russia and Central Asia for another project, and visiting Ukraine 25 years later after the nuclear disaster, folded nicely into my plans. During my first interviews I learned that there is a general social fatigue concerning Chernobyl and it’s effects. People are tired of being portrayed as victims and retelling tales of cancer, radiation, and mutations. It’s not that these issues aren’t important, it’s just that there is so much more to tell. It’s become almost a yearly ritual: every April journalists arrive and ask the same questions and tell the same stories to the international media. And there really is so much more to tell.
When I started exploring and asking questions about childhood, Chernobyl simply became one more element in the lives of the people I interviewed. They became the protagonists and what they shared was surprising. They started sending their friends to me to interview them, their family, inviting me for drinks, on trips. It rapidly became very intense and involving. Ironically, my original plans in Russia are still on hold, and I’ve spent more time in Ukraine than I ever imagined I would. I called the project Igrushka which means Toy in Russian.
The initial feedback was pathetic and I am disappointed by how some of the main stream media reacted or better said didn’t react. For months before the 25th anniversary of the accident I had been in touch with many newspapers and pitched the idea of a piece to them. I already had material at hand and knew that what I was offering was different.
Most media answered by saying they were not interested. Then Fukushima (the nuclear accident in Japan) happened and I was in Chernobyl. Suddenly there was interest, but the angle desired was the same as usual: tragedy, cancer, mutations. Many of the journals I had contacted instead opted for running stock pictures and giving a historical narration.
I knew I was entering foreign ground by pitching an artistic work to mainstream media, and when so many doors closed in my face, it did make me wonder about the worth of my work. But I also know that by including more than just pictures, the project gained a new dimension that makes it both more accessible and relevant.
Social media and online magazines were very receptive and once they started publishing, more mainstream publications starting taking an interest. It confirms how hypocritical some traditional media outlets can be.
The first memories of my childhood begin in Mexico where I was born. I remember escaping into the patio and running in the rain with a straw basket on my head while my grandmother chased after me. I also remember that every so often, my kindergarten would organize field trips to the Cuicuilco pyramid. We would climb up the sides of the pyramid and jump from the lava rocks, exploring, catching butterflies. It is still one of my favorite places to visit, and regret not going there as often as I could.
Other strong memories are of Saudi Arabia where we lived for five years. The school I went to was near an air force base and I learned to distinguish the engine sounds of F’5s, F-14s and later the F-16s. During lunch break and after school my friends and I would build forts in the desert, collect rocks and ride our bikes around the compounds where our families lived. It was a lot of fun and I still enjoy returning to the Arab world and spending time in the desert. My adolescence was mostly in Mexico and Egypt and although I moved around a bit I was lucky to be in a group of good friends, and we are close to this day.