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Nadav Kander on Secret Nuclear Missile-testing Sites

Priozersk XIV (I Was Told She Once Held An Oar), Kazakhstan 2011 © Nadav Kander, from the series Dust

Soviet missile test sites and restricted military zones are the inspiration for Nadav Kander’s latest collection of photographs, which ponder the beauty and destruction in ruins on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia.

“The Geiger counters chattered away on our belts, keeping us from the worst of the invisible dangers,” writes Nadav Kander in his new monograph, Dust. Kander is describing his three-year study of secret Soviet towns, once home to nuclear missile-testing sites, now radioactive landscapes.

As Kander explains in the accompanying text to the book (published by Hatje Cantz, priced at £60), it was while researching cities in Russia for a project that he came across the two so-called ‘closed’ towns located on the Russian- Kazakhstan border. Kurchatov, in north-east Kazakhstan, was home to The Polygon, a key nuclear testing site in the Soviet Union until 1989, and the closed missile testing town of Priozersk, formerly known as Moscow 10, which never appeared on official maps. As a result, both were largely unknown until the advent of Google Earth.

“I was told these towns were mostly destroyed,” writes Kander. “As with many secrets in life, this inspired my wish to know more.”

So began a journey that saw the London-based photographer travel from east Kazakhstan to the Aral Sea, a dried-up lake that lies between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, taking in the radioactive ruins he encountered. Fascinated by the history of these places and propelled by an “interest in the aesthetics of destruction”, Kander photographed the remnants of military training apparatus, decaying homes and graveyards.

Tranquil landscapes, we learn, are former nuclear testing grounds – an uncomfortable marriage of beauty and decay.

“I find the ruin, in its many guises, beautiful, as have many artists before me,” writes Kander. “But it is the combination of beauty and destruction, beauty and melancholy, that really attracts me.”

The mix that Kander describes is especially apparent in the final part of the book, when he travels to the Aral Sea. In the

last 50 years the lake has steadily declined in size due to rigorous Soviet irrigation projects. The once vibrant fishing trade has been all but destroyed, leaving the area desolate and polluted.

Kander’s images reflect the bleakness of this place; ruins of rusty fishing trawlers sit poignantly alongside quiet, empty vistas. Through these images, Kander ponders the nature of destruction and his desire to photograph it.

“We are at the same time frightened and mesmerised by destruction, as we are by death,” he ruminates in the book’s closing pages.

“And without being fully aware of what is pulling me, I am continually drawn to explore this theme; the darker side of our nature, of mankind… a mixture of beauty and truth.”

See more of Nadav’s work here.