Watching 'Chernobyl': How Important Are Visuals for Understanding History?

Watching 'Chernobyl': How Important Are Visuals for Understanding History?

When we think of history and how dry it may appear as a subject to some, what role do visuals play in increasing genuine interest and cultivating understanding of things that have happened?

I myself have always had a strong interest in history, and as such, never truly considered the importance visuals may play in generating interest for those who may find it an uninteresting subject in general, until I came across the new historical HBO TV mini series "Chernobyl" (2019), which made me stop for a moment after watching it and process how the series affected me and how meticulously planned and researched visuals can be game-changers in helping us understand our history better.

The horrific accident that occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear plant on April 26, 1986  "is considered the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history, both in terms of cost and casualties," and yet, in my personal experience, it was a topic that was barely touched on in history class; I had read and learned about it beforehand, but the impact from actually seeing it on a TV screen, compared to black ink in a history book, is incomparable. 

Director Johan Renck, coming originally from a photography and editing background himself, had primarily worked with fictional stories in his career, and as such, this heavily factual series gave him a challenge of translating the magnitude of the actual tragedy into five manageable episodes for the viewers to enjoy. Seeing as photography is important to Renck, it came so natural to place emphasis on how an image makes the viewer feel, more so than for aesthetic purposes, which subsequently transpired in the video work for this series.

The thorough research that had gone into planning and filming this series truly paid off, because everything I saw on the TV screen felt very real and made me feel like I was actually experiencing it all. As a photographer myself, I have come across many life-changing photographic projects that use stills as a way to raise awareness about a particular issue or scene. However, I had never considered the impact video can bring to the wider audience, especially when it comes to generating interest in history and other topics that may not appeal to most.

For those struggling to put the facts and visuals together, documentary photography accompanied with words can be a godsend. But, when you see a beautifully executed TV series that pulls you right back to 1986, it suddenly becomes real. Suddenly, it's not three paragraphs you've read in a history book and forgotten about immediately. Suddenly, it becomes so real, so felt, and so recent. Listening, seeing, and immersing yourself in this is a strong reminder that these are people's lives, not just data in someone's report; these are generations so close to ours and a land that's not that far away for many of us.

Seeing the empty bedrooms and all the toys that didn't fit in the suitcase being left behind, the eerie remnants of the history of families and the years they never got to live in the place they called home, the effects the radiation had on one's body and the consequent impact on their families is uncomfortable, but if stills or video make you feel it, it has already fulfilled what it set out to do.

Visuals, be it a realistic movie or photographs of the real thing, are so powerful. History can be twisted and turned in every which way depending on who's looking at it, but at the same time, there are things that will transpire in photographs and video material regardless: pain, suffering, joy, humanity. And, if history is not your thing at all, you still get to enjoy a captivating story. You don't need to remember the names, the dates, or the technical facts; just experience feeling it all in the comfort of your own home.

Do you think powerful visuals have the ability to change how we view history or at least to increase interest?

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Patrick Hall's picture

Really interesting video. I just wrapped up Chernobyl and wow, what a dark but fascinating mini series. I loved the aesthetic from a production stand point but that aesthetic often made it even harder to watch.

Adriano Brigante's picture

Too bad this show is scientifically very inaccurate.

Andrzej Muzaj's picture

Why too bad? It's drama, not document.

Adriano Brigante's picture

Because most people think it *is* accurate and the show becomes some kind of anti-nuclear propaganda.

Andrzej Muzaj's picture

Well, it's not on director what other people think, is it? On the other hand - Chernobyl, Fukushima Daichii and other power plants accidents show us that there is no such thing as "safe" nuclear power. We always manage some kind of risk, and we have to be aware of that. That is not to say, however, that we should completely abandon the idea. At least when we figure out what to do with nuclear waste.

Paolo Veglio's picture

also how is it scientifically very inaccurate?

Adriano Brigante's picture

There is a lot of inaccuracies. For example, it talks about a 4-megaton explosion that could destroy Kiev and Minsk. It is absolutely impossible for a nuclear core to blow up like a nuke, let alone a 4-megaton nuke. Also, even if a 4-megaton nuke was to be detonated at Chernobyl, Kiev and Minsk are way too far to feel the blast. They wouldn't even see or hear the explosion.

The health effects of radiation are also vastly exaggerated. Once decontaminated, the exposed firefighters were not radioactive and didn't pose a health threat to others. And if you have a hole in your boot while shoveling debris, take off the boot, clean your foot and that's it. The radiation dose you'd get is way lower than what you get in a standard airliner flight.

Basically, when you know how radioactivity and nuclear plants really work, this show feels like fear-mongering and antinuclear propaganda, quite frankly.

Andrzej Muzaj's picture

About firefighters - around 30 people died in the following days because of the radiation exposure. Mostly staff of the plant and some of the fire-fighters as well. They came unprepared, thinking it's just a regular fire. WHO reports and others mention them in details.

As for explosion - it was what they thought at the moment, as a possible risk. It wasn't a core alone to just blow up - some other chemical active substances was in play. Or at least they thought there were these substances (like contaminated water). Legasov, after all, wasn't a nuclear physicist. The risk wasn't there, but they didn't know that at the moment.

While TV series have some facts exaggerated, and some were just fiction serving the plot, they didn't miss the story as a whole that much. It was unnecessary tragedy, based on human incompetence and ignorance. These things, combined with such powers, can make an awful threat for the whole environment. Not only humans.

Rod Kestel's picture

Really interesting, thanks.

You are of course alluding to the power of story telling, of which visuals are only a part. Stories are the natural way for us to share knowledge and values. When we see or hear a story we are vicariously living it ourselves, which makes it real. It allows us to imagine the motivations and emotions of the people involved.

Val Bond's picture

Well, I can't even comment on this latest HBO ultimate CRAP! A BS propaganda mixed with anticommunist dogmatic brainwashing sick nostalgia. Storytelling? What kind of story were they telling? Dreams for American slaves educated on " America, America..." Trump is our god... Unbelievable! In the era of Internet and space travel, they show genitals of Fat "Russian" miners... Is this the best story ever told? Have you ever googled "Russian miners"? Do you ever know how many thousands of volunteers went to Chernobyl only a few days later and how many have been denied access to the station just because they were not trained enough and have no expertise? You are hopeless guys. Better go and create the new "Avengers" and 1001-st "Spiderman". Gross and shameful!