Igor Fedorovich Kostin (born 27 December 1936 in Bessarabia, Greater Romania) was the only photographer in the world to take pictures of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster near Pripyat in Ukraine, on 26 April 1986 - the day of the worst nuclear accident in history. He was working for Novosti Press Agency (APN) as a photographer in Kiev, Ukraine, when he represented Novosti to cover the nuclear accident in Chernobyl. Kostin′s aerial view of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was widely published around the world, showing the extent of the devastation, and triggering fear throughout the world of radioactivity contamination the accident caused, when the Soviet media was working to censor information regarding the accident, releasing limited information regarding the accident on 28 April 1986, until the Soviet Union′s collapse in 1991.
He had captured the ongoing problems with contamination suffered by human beings and animals. His photos reportedly include those of the many animals born with deformities in the Chernobyl area, when has returned many times to the Zone of alienation to bring the problems to the attention of the world. His efforts have exposed him to five times the acceptable level of radiation , and he is now suffering from illness related to this. He resides in Kiev at present day, and is married to Alla Kostin.
Early life and conscription
Kostin was born in Bessarabia, in Greater Romania (present day in Moldova), on 27 December 1936, three years before his father, Féodor Kostin, an economist working in a bank, was sent to fight the war for the newly created Moldavian SSR, after Greater Romania was forced to cede Bessarabia to the Soviet Union under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Before the cession, the Kostin family relocated to Kishinev, Moldavian ASSR (present day the capital city of Moldova, Chişinău). They subsequently resided in the suburb of Kishinev for the next thirty-two years, when his father was sent to the war.
From June 1941 onward, under German and Romanian occupation, Kostin was forced to feed on leftovers disposed by the Germans and better off Moldavians with his mother, Nadejda Popovitch, since his father was the sole breadwinner in the family, and there was widespread famine during the occupation. He and his mother frequently transported food such as borscht illegally to the German concentration camps around Kishinev for the Soviet prisoners of war. It was later revealed by Kostin in his photographic book  that his mother hoped to find his father in the camps, only to realise later that his father was killed during a bombing years later.
In August 1944, the Soviet Union re-established control over Moldavia, and drove the German and Romanian forces out of Moldavian SSR. The entrance of Soviet forces was ushered by aerial bombardment, and almost killed the Kostins, when a bomb obliterated their residence, when they hid under a bed. They later hid near a German armored vehicle, until Soviet forces enter the city.
The Soviet Union began purging native Moldavians, and send richer farmers and the intelligentsia to concentration camps in Siberia. Private business operations became illegal, and Kostin’s mother operated a small family business, at the risk of being exposed to the officials by neighbors. In the mornings the Kostins would wake up to the clamor of some of their neighbors packing up and being deported. It was at this point of time that Kostin turned into a gangster and lost interests in schooling. His early life turned into a game of survival of the fittest. Most people were preoccupied with obtaining the basic necessities of life.
In 1954, he began military service as a degenerated athletic youth in the army, where he was reformed and became a sapper. He revealed that on at least one occasion he was instructed to dig trenches along the Soviet border in anticipation of an American invasion. By the end of his service he grew more insubordinate and went absent without official leave adding seven months of military jail term to his three year military service. His deputy commander assigned him the task of redecorating the “Leninrooms” — political meeting rooms of the barracks. His jail term was immediately commuted upon the completion of the job.
Career as a sportsman and engineer
In 1959, upon being discharged from the army, Kostin began playing volleyball for Kishinev’s regional sporting team. He then moved up the ladder to play for the Moldavian SSR team, subsequently becoming part of the Soviet national team, representing the union in international volleyball competitions. In 1969, his sporting career ended with multiple spinal and knee injuries and complications from negligence of medical treatments. He began studying at the Agronomy Institute of Kishinev, and was employed as Senior Engineer for a construction firm in Kishinev. It was then he received a job offer at the Construction Bureau of Kiev, in Ukraine.
In Kiev, they pioneered a construction framing method that expedited building construction, and Kostin invented a machine for the method, which he was awarded prizes for. He was then promoted to Chief of Construction, and managed a staff of around 50 people. His wife, Alla Kostin, was also an engineer, at the point of time when he ventures into photography.
Career as a photographer
By the mid-1970s, Kostin had lost most interest in the construction industry, and was frustrated with the low fixed salary. He professed that he enjoys photography, specifically portraitures, and won a gold medal for a portrait of his wife in Kiev′s annual photographic exhibition. He had subsequently entered into at least 80 such exhibitions and photographic road-shows throughout the world. Kostin’s career as an amateur photographer earned him more than twice the amount of salary than his career as Chief of Construction in the Construction Bureau of Kiev.
He was then employed in one of Ukraine′s TV station as a copywriter. He was subsequently made an anchor for a monthly photographic programme, where he interviews some of most accomplished photographers around the world. He was simultaneously employed as the Chief of Construction, effectively holding two formal careers. A year and half later, the show was canceled, and he attempted to apply for a placing at Novosti Press Agency (APN) in Moscow, Russian SFSR. He was however, rejected by Galina Pleskova, then Editor-in-Chief for the agency.
Kostin effectively ended his engineering career when he returned to Kiev where he was resorted to be sleeping in the streets to pursue his photographic career. Kiev branch of APN agreed to permit him the use of their photographic development labs. The labs became his temporary abode for around 5 years after which he was employed as war reporter for Novosti.
Kostin covered some of the most severe third-world wars where the Soviet Union was involved, such as in Vietnam War and Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, where he fielded as a non-Communist Party affiliated reporter for Novosti. Due to the fact of non-alignment, he was restricted from entering the front-lines.
After returning from the Afghanistan he began to work periodically for Novosti from the Kiev branch. He reported on local and trans-USSR matters but rarely left the state. On the late evening of 26 April 1986 a helicopter pilot whom he worked closely with for his journalistic activities alerted him that there had been a fire at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl. The fire had been extinguished by the time they arrived at Chernobyl via helicopter, and witnessed a war-like scramble of military vehicles and power plant personnel down at the scene of the nuclear power plant. He also experienced an odd feeling combined with high temperature and toxic smog, that was unusual for an accident scene. The motor of his cameras began to exhibit symptoms of radioactive-caused degradation after around 20 shots. The helicopter returned to Kiev after the cameras′ failure.
Kostin managed to develop the films, only to realise that all but one was unsalvageable - most of the films were affected by the high level of radiation, that caused the photographs to appear entirely black, resembling a film that was exposed to light pre-maturely. Kostin′s only photograph of the nuclear power plant was sent to Novosti in Moscow, but he did not receive a permit to publish it until 5 May 1986. His visit to Chernobyl was illegal and not sanctioned by the authorities. Pravda published limited information about the accident on 29 April 1986, but did not publish Kostin’s photographs.
The accident was interpreted as a major catastrophe by the global news media, even when the Ukrainian and Soviet authorities were trying to suppress any news regarding the accident. Kostin later received permits as one of the representative of the five accredited Soviet media to cover the accident site and the Zone of Alienation. On 5 May 1986 he ventured into the rubbles of the Chernobyl nuclear plant site and Reactor 4 along with the liquidators.
It was then that he covered the mass exodus of inhabitants of Pripyat and 30 km zone surrounding the nuclear power plant, before the 1 May Labour Day celebration. Hundreds had died from the accident, mostly workers at the nuclear power plant, and from thyroid cancer.
- Kostin, Igor; Thomas Johnson (2006). Chernobyl: Confessions of a Reporter. Umbrage Editions, Corbis. ISBN 978-1-884167-57-7.
- Chernobyl:Ten Years Later - a Time magazine photo show, featuring many photos by Igor Kostin
- Guardian Newspaper - Igor Kostin Gallery