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Conspiracy of silence

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: (Published 16 July 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:207
  1. M D Schwartz,
  2. A Kalet

    Between 1951 and 1963, 126 atomic explosions rocked the desert of the Nevada test site, an area considered “virtually uninhabited” by the United States Atomic Energy Commission. In 1979 Carole Gallagher, photographer and documentarian, discovered a declassified memo from the commission which described people living downwind of the test site as “a low-use segment of the population.” This simple statement led her to spend 10 years interviewing and photographing these “downwinders.” The resulting photographs and oral histories were on show at the International Center of Photography in New York City, April-June 1994, and have been published by MIT Press.

    The exhibition begins with a map from the commission showing the nuclear fallout paths. It disturbingly shows how fallout clouds were carried throughout North America - making us all downwinders. Next are stark images of destroyed desert landscape, altered by unimaginably powerful underground explosions - mountains were literally moved. To us the most eerie photograph, however, was of an empty children's playground 10 miles from ground zero, which seemed to emit muffled sounds of children playing.

    The hardy faces of the “downwinders,” captured in black and white portraits, are as weathered and tragic as the surrounding landscape. Their stories, in their own words, are displayed beside each picture.

    Unknowing victims

    These are stories of the personal consequences of radiation …

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