“Ground Zero. In some ways, New Mexico comes a close second to Chernobyl.”
So begins a review, published this week in the Akron Beacon Journal, of an exhibit of photographs of Patrick Nagatani. The New Mexico photographer’s work is on display at the Akron Art Museum for the next few months, in an exhibition titled “Nuclear Enchantment.” Nagatani’s work is “…all about questioning society’s blind faith in the so-called experts, in particular the expertise of science.” Nagatani’s work not only questions that faith but ridicules it, the piece states.
It then labels the New Mexico moniker “Land of Enchantment” as more accurately our “Better Business Bureau nickname.”
Known by its Better Business Bureau nickname as ”Land of Enchantment,” New Mexico is also the birthplace of the nuclear age. It has sites linked to research and development, weapon stockpiles, uranium mines, test sites and reactors alarmingly close not only to large population areas, but also to the tribal lands of the Hopi and Pueblo Indians, the oldest continuous culture in our country.
While the piece doesn’t show the actual pictures, it has great descriptions of the work. Here’s an example:
Uranium Tailings, Anaconda Minerals Corporation, Laguna Pueblo Reservation, New Mexico is a 1990 lifocolor print that illustrates a common misconception.
”If you’re on the right side of a Southwest Airlines 737 heading west and look down [if you're not over the wing],” Nagatani noted, ”you see beautiful white deposits below that make a striking contrast with the gray-brown landscape.
”I have to laugh to myself when I hear people around me admiring these ‘natural’ formations. They’re uranium tailings deposits, acres and acres of them.
”They’re all hot, they’re all radioactive.” And they’re mostly on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation, believed to have been settled in 1699.
It doesn’t stop there. Nagatani has chronicled mishap upon mishap, outrage upon outrage, presented often as bucolic landscapes layered with symbols of benign authority.
The entire piece is worth a read, especially if you can’t get to Akron to see the photographs. We can hope that the exhibition will make it to New Mexico in 2010.
Reading about Nagatani’s exhibit brought to mind a 2006 feature length piece in the Los Angeles Times that details the history of uranium mining and its human consequences in the Navajo Nation, and describes how the mines led to high cancer rates in a place where the disease had previously barely existed.
The U.S. government hasn’t done a systematic study of the human impacts of its nuclear industry on the communities in which it located it’s mines, mills, and experiments during the cold war, but various academic and individual scientific studies combined with oral histories and community based assessments over the years don’t make the comparison to Chernobyl a stretch.
A contentious debate over the future of uranium mining in New Mexico is currently underway. The Navajo Nation in 2005 banned uranium mining on its land, but mining companies are pursuing the development of new mines on the public and private land that snakes into and around Navajo land due to an expectation that a new uranium boom is looming.