Having spent some days shooting around the surrounding areas of the type RBMK-1500 Ignalina Nuclear Power Station, the news that we'd been granted permission to be escorted within the station itself, was incredible.
From entering through armed security border control in the reception to being given complete freedom to photograph all areas including the highly secure Reactor 1 Control Room and the Reactor Core itself was a privilege and an insight into the scale and ambition of these ex-Soviet power stations.
The fortunes of Visaginas are inextricably linked with the power station itself. Whilst most people today are engaged with the act of decommissioning the station, the impact of its closure goes beyond employment.
'There was a time when they used our bodies to cool the reactors,' was how one local described how the hot water generated by the power station used to be pumped from the station via a network of huge pipes to heat the homes of the residents of Visaginas. Cheap energy has now been replaced by expensive, oil burning sourced power.
In a sense, being in Visaginas is like being on a campus. Designed and conceived around the shape of a butterfly, its creation feels very much of a time. The lack of new development and the visible deterioration of some of the material aspects of the town are clear to be seen. As are the considerable numbers of leaf sweepers who in the summer become litter pickers and in the winter, snow clearers. More alarming was the discovery that many of them are qualified to post-graduate levels of education but have fallen into manual labour jobs simply because of their lack of language skills.
When we prepared for our trip, we were aware of an extensive complex of streets that networked and sprawled in a couple of discrete locations outside of Visaginas. When we investigated further, we discovered a 'small town' of garages and lock-ups that are peculiar to Soviet towns.
Residents will often have access to one of these lockups and travel by foot, bike and public transport to access them. Some are used for storage and others to accommodate small businesses. They can be immaculately maintained or be in various decrepit states. There was something a little unnerving about wondering around these spaces – what secrets existed behind lock and key?
Once we got past the inevitable suspicion of the people of Visaginas when we pointed a lens at them, we were universally met by an enthusiasm and desire to tell their story. We got a sense that the people of Visaginas had felt forgotten and maybe even abandoned.
Largely Russians, they are a people with a changing purpose and identity. Russian, Lithuanian or European? In the last couple of decades they have been and still are all of these.
Their real identity seemed to be Visaginian – bound by a shared connection and common desire to survive and flourish at a time when their futures are uncertain and unclear.
The population of Visaginas is in sharp decline as young adults travel further afield to secure work yet those that remain, work hard to create an environment where children are nurtured and developed in order to be equipped to deal with the changing fortunes of their home town.
Wherever you wander within Visaginas, you are never more than a 100 yards from a children's play area. Every block and sector incorporates play areas. Some are new and some clearly date back to the 1970s. Often there will be a nod to the atomic age in which they were built and today it's not uncommon to find large rusting hulks of play apparatus in the shape of atomic structures.
The main road, Taikos pr, that runs through what was conceived to be the horizontal centre of the town, actually has remained the upper limit of Visaginas. The demise of the power station put an end to any planned completion of the town and today the wooded area's only inhabitants are walkers, cyclists and drinkers who gather to consume cheap alcohol under the privacy of the dense canopy of the pine forest.
The marshy surroundings of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Station give visitors an insight into the planned result of the decommissioning of the plant itself. Whilst new structures are in construction by European contractors to house the contaminated nuclear waste removed from Ignalina, the plant itself is destined for complete and absolute removal. We were told by locals that the 'end game' was to return the site back to the nature from which it came – a mixture of woods, marshes and lakes.