Thirty years after reactor four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant suffered a catastrophic meltdown, releasing massive amounts of radioactive particles into the atmosphere, one small town, called Slavutych, carved out of a forest about 25 miles from the plant, seems to be thriving.
“I saw around 2010 some news about a project to build a city from scratch in the south of Ukraine. It sounded like a failure in the making,” Niels Ackermann, this year’s recipient of the Ville de Perpignan Rémi Ochlik Award, tells TIME.
Since 2012, Ackermann has documented the life of Yulia: a teenager coming of age in Slavutych—from flirts and wild parties, drinks and short relationships to a married life with a job and responsibilities. “Through her life and the life of her friends, I could document intimately this process we all go trough,” Ackermann says. But Yulia’s transition to adulthood is different as one of her responsibilities includes working to build a future in the face of a strenuous past. While many of her compatriots studied programming, economics or journalism, most end up working at Chernobyl, either on the construction of a gigantic arch that will seal the exploded reactor or in the disassembly of the reactor in itself.
Ackermann’s photographs reveal human moments—from weekend escapades to wedding parties. “Yulia’s life was a fast-forward view of youth,” he says. “In three years, I saw her going through multiple short term relationships in the beginning, then she met Zhenya, they moved together, they married, they divorced, and now she’s looking for the right one a bit like in the beginning.”
Ackermann wanted to steer clear from the sensational and bring nuance to his work. “We tend to create a biased perception of the country and its potential,” he says. “To some extents it’s nearly a neocolonial approach to present everything that happens in the so-called third world in terms of wars and failures. We forget that most of the time, life just goes on.”
Niels Ackermann is a photographer based in Kiev, Ukraine and a member of Lundi13 photo agency. He will be awarded 8,000 Euros at Visa Pour L’Image in Perpignan, where his work will also be exhibited. The L’Ange Blanc book is available through Les Editions Noir sur Blanc. This project was made possible thanks to the Globetrotter World Photo.