American Ground Zero is the extraordinary product of one photojournalist's decade-long commitment, a gripping, courageous collection of portraits and interviews of those whose lives were crossed by radioactive fallout.
For twelve years beginning in 1951, the United States government conducted above ground testing of nuclear weapons in the deserts of Nevada. For more than four decades it has tried to cover up the human and environmental devastation wrought by this testing. In American Ground Zero, Carole Gallagher has penetrated the veil of official secrecy and anonymity to document the incredible untold story of the Americans whose misfortune it was to live downwind of the nuclear detonations – those citizens described in a top-secret Atomic Energy Commission memo as "a low-use segment of the population" – and of civilian workers and military personnel exposed to radiation at the Nevada Test Site.
The above ground nuclear testing was "the most prodigiously reckless program of scientific experimentation in United States history," Keith Schneider notes in his foreword to the book. Many of its 126 fallout clouds floated across the American West and eastward with radiation levels comparable to those released at Chernobyl. Yet residents of the downwind areas were consistently told that there was no danger, and were even encouraged to "participate in a moment of history" by coming out to watch these fallout clouds drifting over their homes.
Abandoning her career as a successful New York photographer, Carole Gallagher moved to Utah in 1983 and spent the next ten years networking among radiation survivors' groups and finding people willing to be photographed and tell their story. She covered six downwind states in all, including Test Site workers and atomic veterans. The result is a striking gallery of the undecorated casualties of an undeclared war. Never exploitative, Gallagher's photographs only rarely convey the subjects' considerable physical sufferings: instead, they invite the viewer to witness the beauty and value in these ordinary lives.
Carole Gallagher is a photographer whose work has been shown in galleries and museums around the world. She is currently living in New York City.