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Festival of Arts photographer Ron Azevedo reflects on a decade of work in Ukraine

Story by MARRIE STONE

Ron Azevedo first visited Ukraine mostly by happenstance in 2012. As a new exhibitor at the Festival of Arts that year, he was motivated to find unique and interesting sources of artistic inspiration. Abandonment photography always appealed to him and Southern California didn’t contain much compelling subject matter. In those days, flights to Russia were relatively inexpensive and Azevedo figured the country would be rich with visual opportunities. “I didn’t know anyone showing work from that part of the world, or anywhere in Eastern Europe,” Azevedo said. 

He started scouting out photo-rich locations and, around this time, stumbled upon the 2012 film Chernobyl Diaries. “It’s a cheesy horror movie,” Azevedo said, “full of zombies and mutants.” But its setting ignited his imagination. He began googling Chernobyl and discovered, with the right connections, it was possible to get inside. The flight between Moscow and Kyiv was less than two hours. Despite his wife’s reservations about the risks involved, Azevedo would make his first of three visits into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – and the iconic ghost town of Pripyat – that same year. 

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Photo by Charley Akers

 “Ghost of Priyat,” (2013)

Still, he never planned to show these images to anyone. Chernobyl was solely a personal quest. “Look around the Festival,” Azevedo said. “Everybody shows bright, cheery, happy, fun art. It’s not dark and depressing.” In other words, he doubted Chernobyl would sell. 

But when he brought the images home, fellow FOA exhibitor Murray Kruger told him otherwise. Kruger had taken Azevedo under his artistic wing and helped him print and frame his photographs. “He practically threw the Russian pictures back at me and said, ‘You’re not showing these. You have to show Chernobyl. You’ve got something great here. Forget sales. This is art. This is something the world needs to see and I’m not printing anything else.’”

Turned out, Kruger was mostly right. The photographs were fine art and needed to be seen. But they also sold like crazy. And while they’re certainly full of melancholy and abandonment, “dark and depressing” aren’t entirely accurate descriptors of these images. Azevedo aimed for “hauntingly beautiful,” and he accomplished that goal in specific and intentional ways. 

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Photo by Ron Azevedo

“Lessons Learned” (2013). Azevedo’s images, and their resonant titles, hold poignant relevance in light of Russia’s current attack on Ukraine.

“I tried not to use too many black and white images because they looked documentary and almost scarier,” he said. “Color makes for a more pleasing subject that people can accept. It brings out the beauty.” Azevedo also used textured overlays to add warmth and depth. It gave a golden quality to the images.

“I’m always looking for interesting objects,” Azevedo said. “They can be dark and depressing and sad, but they can also be nostalgic. I want to bring back people’s memories of childhood, of Ferris wheels and bumper cars, playgrounds and toys. But I don’t want to lose the reality of what happened there. I still need to keep that other feeling alive in the photos. What happened to the people who owned that building? What happened to the kids who rode this Ferris wheel? Are they alive? Are they sick? I want to bring their stories back to life.”

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Photo by Ron Azevedo

“Awakened Spirit” (2013)

Azevedo was a young man when the Chernobyl disaster happened in 1986. Like most American youth at the time, his memories were little more than flickers of old headlines about a distant place disconnected from his daily life. 

“I had to show people what happened, why it happened and why we shouldn’t be messing with nuclear energy,” he said. “This wasn’t just a spill or a simple accident that only affected the workers at the plant. This displaced hundreds of thousands of people. It killed and affected so many families throughout Russia. There’s a story behind every picture. Maybe I can’t tell the whole story, but it makes people want to know more. They want to learn and understand what they’re seeing, and why and how it happened.”

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Photo by Ron Azevedo

“Frailty” (2017)

When Azevedo first visited Chernobyl in 2012, only a few visitors entered the Exclusion Zone. No matter how long or far he wandered, he’d never see another human being. By his final visit in 2017, a couple busloads of brave tourists arrived each day. “I saw a big difference in those five years, going from probably six people a day to around 100.” This was still before the popular Netflix miniseries, Chernobyl, aired in 2019, which nearly tripled the number of annual visitors from the prior two years. 

Azevedo’s final 2017 visit afforded him the opportunity to spend the night inside. The fog rolled in that morning. Within 100 feet of Azevedo’s dorm stood the skeletal Monument of the Third Angel blowing its wooden horn. “I took that photo in the early morning hours. I’d never get a shot like that if I had to sleep outside the zone.”

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Photo by Ron Azevedo

“Trumpeting Angel of Chernobyl” (2017)

What struck him most about being there? “The silence,” he said. “When I stopped and just listened, I realized I was looking at a city double the size of Laguna Beach. Imagine that whole city is gone. You’re the only one there. You don’t see anyone or hear anything except a couple of birds. You’re looking at building after building after building – from a police station to a market, there’s a cinema and an Arts Center and several schools. They’re just hollow buildings. It’s eerie.

“At first, I thought I’d be scared to death, but photographically I was in a zone. I had this adrenaline. I don’t know how to explain it, but it was this euphoric rush. This was the Holy Grail of abandonment. For a photographer, you can’t get any better than this. 

“Imagine a place completely untouched since 1986. Most abandoned buildings have had some form of human touch, whether they’ve been burned or had their windows broken out or other vandalism. Not here. This place shows what happens when nature takes over. This is nature saying, ‘You can build things. But I own it. I’m taking it back.’ To see how it’s been overtaken and understand it’s going to be nothing in another century, it’s going to be dust. I just kept looking, looking, looking and finding shots and getting angles. But I also stopped, took a breath and absorbed it. I tried to feel what life was like, what people were doing when they had to leave like this.”

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One moment stood out above the rest. “I visited this little village called Zalissya, just inside the Exclusion Zone and one of the first villages we came to after crossing the 30-kilometer checkpoint. As I was going through the houses, I could see where the wood floors had been taken up. There was a lot of vandalism and looting right after the accident because the Russians didn’t believe Chernobyl happened. They thought it was a government thing, and if they couldn’t see it, smell it, or taste it, they didn’t believe it was true. 

“This one image gave me the creeps more than anything else. It just made my hair stand up and a tingle run down my back. I walked into this bedroom and looked up. There was a calendar from 1986 still on the wall, frozen in time. It was marked with all these events coming up, the festivities they’d planned for the year, different things that were happening. Then they were gone. You wonder what their lives were like after that. It was a crazy experience to see that calendar still on the wall.” 

He took a photo of it, but the image couldn’t convey the feeling he had, standing there. “It’s just a picture of a calendar. There’s nothing else on the wall so it didn’t make a great shot, but that was my craziest moment.”

That’s the thing about art. Not everything that moves us can be successfully communicated. And objects that don’t necessarily stir our emotions can nonetheless evoke a powerful response in others. 

Azevedo’s most haunting images contain a sense of arrested motion. We imagine that Ferris wheel still spinning, or those bumper cars careening around the rubber floor. Inside an abandoned classroom, where someone propped a doll wearing a gas mask on a student’s chair, we sense a spirit of morbid play. Azevedo photographed that image through a blown-out television screen, making us feel like we’re watching an old movie, reliving the scene in real time.

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Photo by Ron Azevedo

“Cleansed” (2017)

He captured a decaying piano’s keys stuck in mid-play, children’s drawings hanging on classroom walls and hollow gas masks drooping like dead faces. A tumbleweed drifts across an abandoned theater. Azevedo entitled it “Ceased Celebrations.”

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Photo by Ron Azevedo

“Ceased Celebrations” (2012)

“I could do a whole series on just the art of Chernobyl,” he said. “There’s so much art inside there – paintings, murals and sculptures. There’s a couple of shadowy graffiti murals in the main city. It would be interesting to put that together. I’ve probably got a dozen. 

“My favorite one is relatively new. There’s a big cooling tower – a huge circular tube that was used to cool the reactors. Inside, there’s a building with a famous photograph taken at the time of a doctor wearing a mask. His hands are cupped around his face, and you can see the pain of what he’s seen.” 

Australian street artist Guido van Helton sprayed the mural inside Reactor 5 to mark the 30th anniversary of the disaster. The original photo was taken by the late photojournalist Igor Kostin, who dedicated much of his career to covering the disaster.

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Photo by Ron Azevedo

“Into the Abyss” (2017)

As the war in Ukraine enters its seventh week, I asked Azevedo how he’ll handle his exhibition this summer. It’s a question that’s been gnawing at him for the past few months. “Every time I think about it, I get butterflies in my stomach,” he said. His initial idea, long before Putin’s invasion, was to return to a series of Russian images he took in 2019. But that plan fell by the wayside months ago. 

Beyond Chernobyl and Pripyet, Azevedo has spent significant time in several Ukrainian cities – Kyiv, Zhytomyr (situated 84 miles from Kyiv in western Ukraine), Dubno, Klevan and Pyrohiv (home of The Museum of Ukrainian Folk Architecture and Life). He’s made many local friends, some of whom stayed in Ukraine to fight. His inclination now is to share images of these Ukrainian towns as they looked only a few months ago – full of life, interesting art, beautiful architecture and inspiring people. Much like Pripyat on April 26, 1986, these cities are now marked by a distinct date – before and after. He plans to donate a portion of his summer proceeds to relief efforts in Ukraine. 

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Photo by Ron Azevedo

“Decrepit Big Wheel” (2012)

A quote by legendary photographer Diane Arbus guides some of Azevedo’s artistic philosophy: “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.” 

Ukraine is a country full of secrets and sorrow. Azevedo’s lens has captured much of that this past decade. The more he shows us, the harder it becomes to comprehend what’s happening to it now.

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Photo by Ron Azevedo

“Untitled” – a street scene from Kyiv (2012)

For more information on Ron Azevedo, and to view his images, visit his website at https://ronazevedo.com/. Azevedo will once again be exhibiting his photography at the Festival of Arts this summer. Follow the Festival of Arts at https://www.foapom.com/.

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