• April 6, 2016

Abandoned Nuclear Testing Sites Reveal the ‘Palm Print of Man’

Sarah Stacke

When the bombs dropped, the birds fell from the sky and lay squawking on the shaken ground until they died. Only the crows survived, their black-feathered bodies circling above as the dust settled on the trees, buildings, and beings below.

The Polygon Nuclear Test Site VII

Nearly 25 years have passed since the Soviet Union’s nuclear testing site on Kazakhstan’s eastern border stopped detonating nuclear devices, yet the fallout remains. It reveals itself in devastatingly high numbers of local birth defects, cancers, and landscapes adorned with shuttered cities and crumbling buildings.

Priozersk II (Tulip in Bloom)

It is these cities, shrouded in secrecy and not shown on maps until Google Earth unveiled them, that drew photographer Nadav Kander to document the scarred landscapes of Kazakhstan, and, by doing so, to explore the darkness within the human condition.

The Aral Sea III (Fishing Trawler)

“That idea of secrecy and people keeping things from other people really ignited me,” says Kander. “I just knew that I would find very interesting things in these areas that were still quite secret and difficult to get into. They seemed perfect for what I like to photograph, which is memories and the landscape, the human traces that can tell us more about ourselves than ourselves.”

Graveyard near Kurchatov, Kazakhstan, 2011
Graveyard Near Kurchatov

In the resulting body of work, “Dust,” Kander uses spacious compositions and a subdued color palette to evoke a sense of stillness. The quiet scenes invite the viewer to linger and contemplate the implications of the hauntingly beautiful devastation before them. “My landscapes are never about the nature,” he says. Instead they’re about the “palm print of man, how we exist on our planet, how we deal with our surroundings.”

Kurchatov IV (Telephone Exchange)

Through Kazakhstan’s radioactive ruins Kander confronts the central balancing acts of human nature. “You can’t live without dying; there’s no beauty without imperfections,” he says. “If you hide away from that all the time, it’s a perfect recipe [for] unhappiness.”

The Polygon Nuclear Test Site I (After the Event)

“Dust” was created in three separate locations in Kazakhstan: Kurchatov/the Polygon, Priozersk, and the Aral Sea. Kurchatov was the center of scientific operations for the Soviet Union’s nuclear program. The Polygon, about 12 miles away, was where hundreds of experimental bombs were exploded during the Cold War. The villagers and livestock that lived on the land surrounding the Polygon unknowingly became the subjects of scientists researching the impact of nuclear weapons. Priozersk, which remains a closed city, is currently the administrative center for testing antiballistic systems. The Aral Sea was the area from which long-distance missiles were fired and tracked by scientists in Priozersk.

Kurchatov I (Scientific Research Facility)

These landscapes––and the stories they represent––may seem too wrecked and barren to harbor any remaining beauty, but it is precisely this uncomfortable tension between their beauty and their cynicism that drew Kander in.

“It was very odd being there, because it’s so quiet, especially the Polygon,” he says. The silence and solitude of his explorations were only interrupted by the Geiger counter ticking away on his belt, the flow of breath through his face mask, and the rustling of his white plastic suit, all meant to keep the radioactive dust at a distance. “You are reminded all the time of where you are,” he says. “These ruins that are in the Polygon are very much a signpost to our past; they are like memories, and that’s what I’m looking for. We almost see a child left out in the cold on their own. They feel quite vulnerable, and I think that is the romance of the ruin.”

The Aral Sea I (Officers Housing)

Although Kazakhstan is accessible to anyone with a visa and Kurchatov is no longer a closed city, the authorities like to keep people away from the Polygon. “It’s really pretty dangerous if you don’t have the right equipment,” says Kander. On each of the two journeys he undertook in 2011 for this project, Kander was arrested. “It was really no fun because you just don’t know when it will end … They take you to a police station where you might spend six hours but not know if it will be two weeks,” he says. He was released within a day on each occasion, but the incidents stopped him from going back a third time.

Priozersk XIV (I Was Told She Once Held an Oar)

One of Kander’s favorite images, “Graveyard Near Kurchatov,” was taken just outside of Kurchatov. The ground is covered in a fresh layer of snow, a graveyard stretches along the horizon, and smokestacks in the background release gray plumes of vapor into the air. Of the juxtaposition of life and death, beauty and fallibility, reflected in the image, Kander says, “It is the inevitable, the yin and the yang … the ‘reality of life.'”

Kander challenges himself to make photographs that embody his own questions about the world and the human condition. “I’m always asking myself if my questioning is being seen in the pictures,” he says. “But I don’t try and answer. That’s really my approach, to leave these pictures open. I’m just like you; I’m leaving the question open. A picture doesn’t hold the script—the narrative is all in the viewer.”

Nadav Kander’s project, “Dust,” will be on display for the first time in New York at Flowers Gallery from April 7 to May 7, 2016. Kander will be in conversation with Bill Hunt on Saturday, April 9, at the gallery. Dust is also available as a book, published by Hatje Cantz in 2014, with an introduction by author Will Self.

There are 11 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Berrie
    April 18, 2016

    The palm-print of man? More like the iron-clad fist!

  2. Greg Manning
    April 13, 2016

    Very powerful photographs . So much stronger in this case than the written word.

  3. Sujoy Adak
    April 8, 2016

    Painfully haunting landscapes of calamity. Will we ever realize?

  4. Maggie Meyers
    April 7, 2016

    I’m not sure what to say… The scene’s are haunting, horrible, sad, painful to see. Yet, I feel I have to look because to not do so helps maintain the silence of the sins of man. Even though I’m a grandma, I have a small child to raise. I fear for her and what world she is growing up in. Will there be beauty left for her to show her children or grandbabies? Will she see beauty in every day life or have to go to a zoo or museum to see and remember what it once was? Commenter Joan Hobbs is on target. It’s not just the bombs that have raped the lands. We kill more and more every single day and far too many people are content to put their heads in the dust and ignore it all, or not want to worry about it because they will be dead before it becomes too bad, or worse still, are wealthy and have no worries that their world will still remain the same. This is not just pictures of the past. These pictures can be/are the pictures of the future. This is NOT what God created the world to be. We are commanded to care for the earth and be its stewards. We are failing our earth, and children, our selves and our God.

    Thank you so much for these photos. They speak volumes… I hope their voices are heard loud and clear.

  5. pirmjit
    April 7, 2016


  6. Nigel Vos
    April 6, 2016

    The pastel muted colours, grey overcast, emptiness and lack of life accented with a touch of more vivid colour here-and-there give the photographs a haunting beauty.

  7. Alex
    April 6, 2016

    You have given silence a portfolio and it is beautiful, thank you

  8. Joel
    April 6, 2016

    There is a beauty to these images, I don’t know how to describe why though. It is so sad that these places exist; reality doesn’t have to be like this.

  9. Joan Hobbs
    April 6, 2016

    I cannot accept that this sick level of destruction is necessary to appreciate beauty. Some people aren’t satisfied unless they leave their marks such as these, sadly. And the rest of us have no say in the matter when someone is determined. Beware the smaller sins of seemingly harmless chemicals that people use on a daily basis. Beware the cookies or candy you eat with palm oil that unless the packaging says sustainably sourced, organic, is made by burning down hundreds of acres of forest to plant monocultures of palm trees. So if you profess to be horrified by this, then please examine your own contributions to the destruction of our earth that is in our control. Those little plastic laundry balls contain chemicals that our environment would do without. Yes, be horrified at these great pictures, but also do not turn a blind eye to our own daily contributions. America used more than a billion plastic water bottles last year alone. Are you recycling these bottles? Can you get a filter and bring your own bottle? These ideas are a start, if you are not already aware of, and doing something about these things.

  10. Jon
    April 6, 2016

    To reverse the quote, there is no beauty without imperfections. For what is shown, I would like to see what perfections there were before it was robbed of it’s beauty.

  11. Jacqui
    April 6, 2016

    Miserable, depressing scenes. Just one more example of the destruction man has brought to this once green earth. Expect more of the same…eventually.

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