Fukushima, Vieques, Rocky Flats: Radioactive photos tell nuclear stories via Ars Technica

Ars speaks to artists about their unique approaches to cameras and nuclear energy.

PORTLAND, Ore.—In the cool, hushed atmosphere of Portland’s Newspace Center for Photography, a Geiger counter clicks steadily as I orient myself to the room. White walls, wood floors, and the faint, clean smell of an elementary school auditorium. I was here to see the “Reactive Matters” exhibit, a small collection of photography by three artists whose works document nuclear energy, nuclear weapons, and the disasters that have peppered our history of experimenting with radioactive material.


Digging deep

Chicago-based artist Jeremy Bolen told Ars over the phone that he became interested in nuclear energy after he visited “Site A” in the Red Gate Woods on the former grounds of the Argonne National Laboratory. (Argonne still exists in Illinois, but the lab was moved in 1947.) Site A became the first nuclear waste dumping ground in the US after scientists built an early nuclear reactor there in 1943.

“I began trying to make images of the site because it’s a hidden site, it’s not a tourist destination, but it might be one of the more important places in history,” Bolen told Ars, adding that he grew up in a neighborhood close to Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory outside of Chicago and has had an enduring interest in high-energy particle physics.

Bolen’s featured works at Newspace include a series named after Vieques, an island belonging to Puerto Rico that was used for weapons testing by the United States between when the US bought about two-thirds of the island in 1941 and when the military left the island in 2003.

According to Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, “More than 80 million pounds of chemical weapons, bombs and ammunition were dropped on the eastern portion of the island for a good part of the 20th century. Its soil still harbors bullets filled with radioactive depleted uranium and unexploded bombs.” In 2010, about 7,000 residents of the island jointly sued the US Navy claiming that military operations on the island were the cause of Vieques’ higher-than-average rate of cancer, along with a slew of other long-term medical issues. A Puerto Rican Federal District Court dismissed the lawsuit, and the US First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that dismissal in 2012 due to the Navy’s right to sovereign immunity.


“A lot of my time is spent researching,” Bolen said. His photos at Newspace touch on some of the controversies around nuclear energy and atomic warfare, so I had to ask what message he was hoping to convey with the work featured in Portland. “I try to remain fairly objective about the whole thing,” Bolen explained. “I see myself really as documentary photographer. I’m more interested in finding a way to document these sites.”

Still, he added, “I care deeply about a lot of these issues. I’m very interested in the idea of the anthropocene [the epoch defined by geologists to articulate human impact on our world] and I think that it’s important to understand that there are things beyond our senses, things that we can’t see.”


Old stomping grounds

Newspace also featured a collection by Shimpei Takeda, a Brooklyn artist who was born in Fukushima and grew up vacationing there after his family moved to Tokyo. After the 2011 Fukushima disaster, he returned to the area of the nuclear disaster to create his “Trace” series, using a cameraless photography process to show how the region was affected by radioactive contamination.

“He collected soil from various locations in Fukushima representative of life and death, such as temples, shrines, war sites, and his own birthplace,” Newspace’s informational panel noted. “He then exposed photo-sensitive paper to radiation emitted from contaminated particles in the soil. The subsequent photograms appear as highly abstract black and white constellations, yet their very existence uncovers one of the worst man-made disasters of our times.”

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