The magazine of the art-form of the photo-essay
July 2016 issue
by Jadwiga Bronte
“A free, really high quality photo-essay magazine. Fabulous!”
Stephen Fry. British actor, writer and film & documentary maker
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I was born in neighboring Poland, a satellite state of USSR at the time of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. I decided
to go to Belarus to document the stories of horrifically neglected and abandoned children, born with mental and
physical deficiencies from the aftermath of this tragic accident 30 years ago. During my investigations, what surprised
me the most was that it wasn’t just victims of the Chernobyl disaster that were housed in these institutions.
Belarus, located in the far-flung reaches of Eastern Europe, is the last dictatorship on the continent and for some is
still considered to be part of Russia. This is a place where the president, Alexander Lukashenko is seen as an
unchallenged, fearsome and almost ‘God-like’ figure. Belarusians still fear the KGB and their ever-watchful eye. This is
very much a place where ‘Soviet’ mentality is still the norm.
When walking down the streets, you could easily imagine yourself on a movie set. Everything is extremely clean and
organized, the grass is always clean-cut, and the architecture glitzy and reflecting perfectionism. It does make you
wonder exactly what may be ‘hiding’ behind this facade.
Invisible People of Belarus is a documentary project about the lives of disabled people and Chernobyl victims locked
up in the governmental institutions called ‘Internats’. An Internat is the name given to government institutions that
home disabled people. They are somewhere between an orphanage, an asylum and a hospice for people with mental
disabilities, Down syndrome, autism, people with physical mutations, deformations, and people with AIDs.
The government has created Internats to separate Chernobyl victims and disabled children from other healthier
orphans in order to keep them hidden from the society. These are places where tens of thousands of people spend
their entire lives. These institutions have become the subject of folklore, legends and stigma.
In general, disabled people are certainly still something of a taboo in Belarus, and often abandoning, or ‘giving them
away’ is easier than being exiled from the local community. Mothers are told that institutions are better places for their
disabled kids than home. In the past, mothers would be persuaded to give up their children and place them in the
Internats, nowadays they are manipulated into abortion. Belarusian people themselves are not aware of what is really
going on inside these places. People are not properly looked after, hardly any medical staff work at the internats.
Most of the carers are ex-cleaners with no medical training. Internats are partly self-sufficient, where patients are
forced to work in fields, clean and cook.
This project aims to indirectly expose the on-going problems with human rights violations; poor health care and free
labour, which very often come with lack of money and knowledge.
These photos are a story of these people as human beings; as people who suffer and struggle against injustice
everyday of their lives; and as people who look after each other, build long lasting friendships, and even fall in love, all
in an environment that is far from civilized life.
Radiation is invisible. This picture was taken in Gomel District, on my way to one of the Internats. They
are located in very remote places sometimes very close to contaminated zones. Belarus was the most
affected country after the Nuclear Disaster of 1986 and there are still on-going serious issues with
radiation, which is invisible and difficult to comprehend by many local people.
Free Labor - Disabled women working in a field. Institutions are partly self-sufficient. Patients are forced
to work in fields, clean and cook.
An empty corridor inside an orphanage. After lunch everybody, including adults, are forced to have a nap.
This provides some time for the staff to attend to other duties. These institutions are rarely staffed with
medical professionals and often it is the cleaners who provide minimal care for these people.
Lyosha. This severely autistic boy is very active and impatient, however in front of a camera he would
calm down immediately. He loved the flash light and would pose perfectly still until the light fired.
Room/cell for dangerous patients who are separated from the rest for security reasons. There have been
incidents when patients have killed each other whilst sharing cells.
Ex-policeman and his friend during evening activity time. This boy had Electroconvulsive therapy before
coming to this institution. There are a lot of horror stories of people being randomly locked up by the
Some of the older residents are locked into small rooms without windows. The tiny vision panel in the
door is all they have.
Sveta. The aftermath from Chernobyl has not yet passed is Belarus. Every year children are born with
mental and physical deficiencies from the disaster of 1986. People still live in contaminated zones or
carry ‘genetic marks’ from the past generation.
Room with multiple rows of beds. Couples have no privacy, residents are divided by sex and sleep in
Couple awkwardly posing. Within the institutions, patients build long lasting friendships and even fall in
love. The environment is far from civilised, and prevents intimacy and privacy as all rooms are shared.
The girl had a car accident as a young child. Her face was crushed and she has brain damage. Her
mother abandoned her straight away.
This mural-like looking old picture of a woman, is the mother of a resident was photographed in one of
the Internats. It is rare that patients have pictures of their parents, as most of were abandoned just after
Personal belongings are very important for the residents. They love to be photographed with them.
A cemetery adjoins one of the institutions with nameless graves of patients. In rare cases, a family of the
patient requests for the officials to put their name on the cross.
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