Watching 'Chernobyl': How Important Are Visuals for Understanding History?

Historians in the News
tags: pop culture, Chernobyl, television, visual history

When we think of history and how dry it may appear as a subject to some, what role do visuals play in increasing genuine interest and cultivating understanding of things that have happened?

I myself have always had a strong interest in history, and as such, never truly considered the importance visuals may play in generating interest for those who may find it an uninteresting subject in general, until I came across the new historical HBO TV mini series "Chernobyl" (2019), which made me stop for a moment after watching it and process how the series affected me and how meticulously planned and researched visuals can be game-changers in helping us understand our history better.

The horrific accident that occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear plant on April 26, 1986  "is considered the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history, both in terms of cost and casualties," and yet, in my personal experience, it was a topic that was barely touched on in history class; I had read and learned about it beforehand, but the impact from actually seeing it on a TV screen, compared to black ink in a history book, is incomparable. 

Director Johan Renck, coming originally from a photography and editing background himself, had primarily worked with fictional stories in his career, and as such, this heavily factual series gave him a challenge of translating the magnitude of the actual tragedy into five manageable episodes for the viewers to enjoy. Seeing as photography is important to Renck, it came so natural to place emphasis on how an image makes the viewer feel, more so than for aesthetic purposes, which subsequently transpired in the video work for this series.



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