INTERVIEW: Pierpaolo Mittica, the man who photographs the most toxic places in the world

Dr. Pierpaolo Mittica is an Italian humanist photographer. To me, he is most known as an author of the fantastic ‘Chernobyl: The Hidden Legacy’ book about the consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe. Which my lovely wife got me for my birthday. In 2006 the work ‘Chernobyl: The Hidden Legacy” was selected by the Chernobyl National Museum of Kiev (Ukraine) for the official exhibition for the twentieth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster.

To the world, he is currently known for photographing the most toxic places in the world.

Mr. Mittica, can you tell me what did you work on when you were in Balkans in 1990’s?

– I started becoming interested in Balkans during the war in 1995, I was shocked because there was a war inside Europe, a genocide no one said anything about. Europe was completely indifferent, and also few medias reported about. So I decided in 1997 to go to Sarajevo to understand why there was so cruel war and why Europe did not consider that for so many years. After, in 1999 the war in Kosovo started so I continued my project about Balkans war.

You seem to go to places which other would avoid. You even have a project named ‘Living Toxic’ where you visit the most polluted areas of the world. What drives you? Aren’t you scared for your own health?

– There is always a motivation that moves me and that makes me not scared about the situations I’m involved. The motivation is the sense of justice, the importance for me to give to the last ones, the poorest, the oppressed, the possibility to speak and help them. In 2011 I started a long term project about the most polluted places in the world named Living toxic because I think that the most important issue now is pollution and climate change, for all of humanity. If we don’t understand that we are destroying our Earth, the only place where we can live, we will destroy ourselves. And we are doing it.

What’s the scariest thing you’ve felt or witnessed during your work, and what’s the best moment?

– Probably the scariest work was inside Fukushima exclusion zone just after the accident, it was very scary because radioactivity was everywhere, the geiger counter always rang and the levels of radioactivity were very high. Very scary situation because you cannot see radioactivity and it’s everywhere and the geiger counter reminds you about it.
There are many best moments, probably the ones when you see that your work helps someone.

The Russian city of Karabash, in the Chelyabinsk region, is one of the most polluted places on earth. The city is the site of a copper-smelting plant, built more than a 100 years ago, and its toxic waste has caused enormous pollution and dire health problems for the inhabitants of the region.
The Russian city of Karabash, in the Chelyabinsk region, is one of the most polluted places on earth. The city is the site of a copper-smelting plant, built more than a 100 years ago, and its toxic waste has caused enormous pollution and dire health problems for the inhabitants of the region.
What happened in Mayak is one of the most serious ecological disasters caused by man, but it has been forgotten too quickly. It was the first major nuclear accident and caused radioactive contamination 20 times that of Chernobyl. Mayak nuclear plant is situated in the Urals in the Chelyabinsk region, about 1,500 kilometres from Moscow. It was built in 1948 to create the plutonium needed to build the first soviet atom bomb. The story of Mayak is rather complicated: there were in fact three main accidents.
What happened in Mayak is one of the most serious ecological disasters caused by man, but it has been forgotten too quickly.
It was the first major nuclear accident and caused radioactive contamination 20 times that of Chernobyl. Mayak nuclear plant is situated in the Urals in the Chelyabinsk region, about 1,500 kilometres from Moscow. It was built in 1948 to create the plutonium needed to build the first soviet atom bomb. The story of Mayak is rather complicated: there were in fact three main accidents.
Magnitogorsk is a city of about 420 thousand inhabitants in the Chelyabinsk region, on the banks of the Ural River. In 1930 one of the largest steel plant in the USSR was built here. It went on to produce the steel needed to build half of all the Soviet tanks made during the Second World War. Of the population of 420 thousand, 64 thousand people are employed by MMK, the semi-privatised company that runs the steel plant and is now controlled by Vladimir Putin. MMK produces 7.5 million tons of steel a year, the same amount produced by the whole of the UK.
Magnitogorsk is a city of about 420 thousand inhabitants in the Chelyabinsk region, on the banks of the Ural River. In 1930 one of the largest steel plant in the USSR was built here. It went on to produce the steel needed to build half of all the Soviet tanks made during the Second World War. Of the population of 420 thousand, 64 thousand people are employed by MMK, the semi-privatised company that runs the steel plant and is now controlled by Vladimir Putin. MMK produces 7.5 million tons of steel a year, the same amount produced by the whole of the UK.

One place seems to inspire you more than the others, as you’ve published two books about it – Chernobyl. Is this so? Why Chernobyl?

– I did a long term project about Chernobyl, from 2002 till 2007 and I had the possibility to publish a book about Chernobyl titled ‘Chernobyl: The Hidden Legacy’, published by the English editor Trolley. Later, this book was published also in Spain and in Japan. Chernobyl was, for me, a fundamental argument to cover because my mother land (I live in north Italy), was seriously hit by the nuclear accident. Moreover, Chernobyl is one of the worst situations of injustice against millions of people perpetrated by authorities, political and economic
interests.

You didn’t just visit ghostly buildings in Pripyat and surronding places, you’ve also visited children who now have serious ilnesses, as a result of the catastrophe. What was that like?

– This was probably the hardest part of the Chernobyl work. It was really hard for me to talk with and photograph all those children, with serious illnesses like cancers, and without any hope to survive. But speaking with them I found the strength to go on and to take their testimony that is very important to understand the dramatic consequences of Chernobyl accident.

When one goes through your galleries, he or she is faced with some fascinating and dark stories. And then, there’s one that seems colorful – ‘A life in Colours’. But, clicking on the first photo you can see they’re not light or happy at all. Can you tell us what are they about?

– A ‘Life in Colours’ was a small story about the people who produce artificial colours for the holy festival in India. They are all very poor people living in Mumbai slums and working in very hard conditions with toxic chemical products. I want to show that behind the beautiful and celebrated holy festival, known in all the world, there are people risking their life, breathing chemical toxic powders, and are underpaid, earning few euros per day.

In 2010. you were in Bangladesh, shooting children-slaves of Dhaka. Can you describe us the experience? Has anything changed since then?

– The experience was one of the best because I met one of the greatest man I ever met in my life. His name is Riccardo Tobanelli. Father Riccardo Tobanelli is a Xaverian Missionary Priest. He has lived in Bangladesh since 1982 and founded a non-profit organization called Tokai Songho to take care of street children.
The association seeks to meet the needs of Tokai for shelter, food, health and legal aid against abuse. Former Tokai children, who have lived with Father Riccardo since the 1990s, work with him to take care of the Tokai who still live on the streets. The aim of the association is to free the children from debt and slavery and to take them off the street and give them a better future.
Many of them are out of the street thanks to him and the people who donate money to help his work.

 On the 11th March 2011 one of the most violent earthquakes ever, followed by a devastating tsunami, hit Japan and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, damaging its security and cooling systems. Over the course of a few days the core of reactors 1, 2 and 3 started to melt, releasing massive quantities of radioactive material into the air and ocean. Tepco, the company managing the reactor, and the Japanese government tried to buy time with false truths and omissions, partly due to their total unpreparedness to deal with the situation. In the meantime the radioactive fallout contaminated 8% of the territory of Japan, forcing 160 thousand people to evacuate their homes.

On the 11th March 2011 one of the most violent earthquakes ever, followed by a devastating tsunami, hit Japan and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, damaging its security and cooling systems. Over the course of a few days the core of reactors 1, 2 and 3 started to melt, releasing massive quantities of radioactive material into the air and ocean.
Tepco, the company managing the reactor, and the Japanese government tried to buy time with false truths and omissions, partly due to their total unpreparedness to deal with the situation. In the meantime the radioactive fallout contaminated 8% of the territory of Japan, forcing 160 thousand people to evacuate their homes.
There is a volcano, south of the island of Java, called Ijen. During the 1960’s the first miners installed metal tubes into its crater, which is almost completely filled by an unnaturally green sulphuric lake, to extract the sulphur. Miners leave from the base camp at the foot of the volcano every day, and after a two-hour trek and three hours climbing to get to the top of the mountain, they climb down the walls of the crater walking along a steep path traced by their imagination alone.
There is a volcano, south of the island of Java, called Ijen. During the 1960’s the first miners installed metal tubes into its crater, which is almost completely filled by an unnaturally green sulphuric lake, to extract the sulphur. Miners leave from the base camp at the foot of the volcano every day, and after a two-hour trek and three hours climbing to get to the top of the mountain, they climb down the walls of the crater walking along a steep path traced by their imagination alone.
“Incredible India!” is the slogan of the Indian tourist board, promoting the historical and cultural wonders of that huge country. India does not only have incredible history, monuments and culture, but it also has other sides, which make this country one of the most contradictory places in the world, and one of the most complicated to understand.
“Incredible India!” is the slogan of the Indian tourist board, promoting the historical and cultural wonders of that huge country. India does not only have incredible history, monuments and culture, but it also has other sides, which make this country one of the most contradictory places in the world, and one of the most complicated to understand.

2011-2012 you’ve published photos from Fukushima. Can you compare it to Chernobyl?

– The story of Fukushima and Chernobyl developed in exactly the same way. Their governments have tried to hide the incident at the first moment, The shocking thing is that the Soviet Union was a dictatorship while Japan is one of the most advanced democracies. And they have behaved in the same way.
For me to enter the exclusion zone of Fukushima was like seeing Chernobyl in 1986 (I went there for the first time in 2002) while entering the exclusion zone of Chernobyl for me was to see how will Fukushima look in 25 years. A trip through time with the same results.

One pragmatical question – can a photographer live of his work nowadays, when, for example, newspapers get rid of photographers and give their journalists iPhones in exchange?

– It is very hard to live in the field of social reportage. There is much competition, many talented professional photographers (fortunately), but also improvised photographers, who often give photos for free to magazines just to see their name published. This kills the market, because then, the magazines will not pay professionals to do the work. But it also kills the culture of photography, because only professionals and great photographers can achieve great works. And if they are not paid they can not do it.

Do you still shoot film or have you transferred to digital photography?

– I shot films till 2007, then in 2008 I transferred to digital. It was a normal process, the market requires it and now digital quality is at the same level as films.

What camera and lenses do you use?

– At the moment I use a Nikon D800 and a Nikkor 24-70 2.8D lens. Normally in my work in the field I work very “light” with only one camera and one lens.

Do people ask you questions like – What should I do to become a good photographer? I’ve got a shiny new DSLR camera..?

– Sure, it is the most frequent question! I think that the camera is not important, the important things are motivation, passion, working hard and modesty; it is the only thing that makes you evolve.

What are your plans for the future? Do you have any other projects in mind?

– Probably my next ten years of photographic life will be in doing my project Living toxic, a really long term project. Because, unfortunately, there are many polluted places in the world and it is the most urgent issue today.

The scourge of street children is one of the most dreadful examples of injustice, poverty and exclusion. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, alone there are more than 60 thousand street children. The children survive at the margins of society, only counting on their own strength. Their rights are the most ignored of all, and they are victims of indifference, economic exploitation and sexual and physical abuse.
The scourge of street children is one of the most dreadful examples of injustice, poverty and exclusion. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, alone there are more than 60 thousand street children. The children survive at the margins of society, only counting on their own strength. Their rights are the most ignored of all, and they are victims of indifference, economic exploitation and sexual and physical abuse.
Sarajevo 1997
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