Credit: Gabriela Bulisova

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As Barack Obama prepares to make the first presidential visit to Hiroshima, the Goethe-Institut has a limited but well-timed pair of photographic exhibits about the lasting legacy of radioactivity.

“Half-Lives and Half-Truths in the Radioactive Shadowlands” features the work of two photographers—Gabriela Bulisova, who documented the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear incident, and Robert Knoth, who photographed the more recent nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, Japan.

The D.C.-based Bulisova, who exhibited similar work at the Fraser Gallery in 2005, uses a dull, mostly color palette to paint a depressing picture of the people who lived in the “exclusion zone” surrounding the destroyed Chernobyl plant in Ukraine. A woman leans back, eyes closed, with surgical scars visible on her neck. A young man stands with dozens of pins on his chest but little indication whether they are genuine awards for heroism or just collectibles. And a figure kneels on the floor in a dark, grim hallway.

Visually, Bulisova’s finest image may be the black-and-white photograph of a shadowy, backlit figure mediated by a gauzy piece of fabric, its diaphanous feel at odds with the subject’s downcast mood.

Credit: Robert Knoth

Whereas the Chernobyl images are populated with sad survivors, the Fukushima photographs are quiet and eerily devoid of people.

One shows a “Drink Paradise” of roadside vending machines—still turned on, but with wares presumably contaminated and surrounded by overgrown vines. Another shows a dreary, deserted highway amid overcast skies.

Both series would have benefited from detailed captions explaining what was photographed. Sometimes, though, the guesswork is bracing, making images compelling precisely because they are enigmatic.

In the Fukushima series, does a tree with bright yellow leaves amid ordinary forest greenery have an unusual color because of lingering contamination? And is the heavy mist that hangs over a pretty mountainscape an homage to countless works of Asian art, or the presence of a toxic miasma? With these documentary series, it’s wise not to bet on the former.

Through May 20 at Goethe-Institut, 1990 K St. NW, Suite 03