The world probably stood in the brink of nuclear war half a dozen times since the 1960’s up until the 1980’s when the Berlin Wall’s collapse signaled the end of the rift between the United States and the then Union of Soviet Union. Unbeknownst to most people, the fate of mankind resided not only on the orders of the leaders of both superpower nations, but also at the steady fingers of a very few and select individuals who have spent years working in underground and top secret locations, all holding security codes and within reach of pushing the buttons that will launch missiles to target each country and their allies. “For 25 years my wife had no idea where I was going, when I left the house in the morning,” recalled retired Warrant Officer Vladimir Ishenko. “Naturally, I was prepared to launch. That was our purpose,” said retired Colonel Alexander Tarasenko. It is certainly a difficult job description that these retired men have fulfilled during that time – something that they all now heave a sigh of relief at knowing they have done their job without resorting to keying launch codes. Wanting to learn more about these unknown persons who experienced the inner layers in the story of the Cold War, photographer Justin Barton tracked down the now retired former missile crews to not only take their portraits but to also get a wealth of information from their many recollections of that inspiring yet scary part of our history.
Tell us how the idea to this series came about?
I had been working on another series about the Russian version of the Space Shuttle (called Buran) which led me to try to track down some of the elements of the crafts that were still left in Moscow. I was inquiring about the rocket motors when I was told that if I was interested there were a number of motors and other items which could be visited in Ukraine if I was interested in that kind of history. It was during this trip that I met my (now) wife and she helped with translation and fixing all along the way. She had been at school in England so it was easy for her to switch between languages and she knew their culture well enough to be persuasive and understanding.
When I visited the silo I was taken to see it by one of the ex-Strategic Rocket Forces Missile Combat crew. When you are in the control room the first thing you think of are the people who were in the ‘other’ control room, at least this was true for me. I couldn’t help marveling at this crazy and counter-intuitive system that meant that one side was totally reliant on the other to maintain the status quo. Having spoken to other ex-SRF crews through meeting Vladimir I could see they were interested in the ‘other side’, but given the circumstances in Ukraine they would never be able to visit themselves. I later found that in the US this kind of history is well kept and felt that it would only be right to explore that side of things too. All in all it was a journey rather than a idea from nothing. However, I can see that my interest in this kind of history comes from my childhood and that my school was in a large part from the forces. We would regularly debate the number and type of soviet ICBMs between ourselves – I even had a NATO sticker on my locker!
Describe to us the amount of research you did to reach out to the subjects you photographed?
As I mentioned before I had managed to get in contact with some ex-SRF guys and with considerable charm and effort I had managed to get them engaged. It would have been impossible to photograph them on the first visit though as they were pretty cagey about what they had actually got up to, however I had got hold of the email address of the wife of the ex-commander. I then tried to track down some US missileers. I found that there were quite a few ‘Cold War Veterans’ sites in the US. One of these had a list of ex-missilers and others who were connected and on the list it showed their positions. I requested the owner of the site if I could send his members a questionnaire and fortunately he was enthusiastic about the idea.
The response to my email was amazing. I had hundreds of replies and it seemed that for the most part what many of these guys think is that they were ‘forgotten’. I went through all the responses and tried to find those that were most interesting and contact them again. Fortunately at this time I received a grant based on the work that I had already done from the Lucie Foundation so I then flew to the US again to track down the guys who were around and willing to have their portrait done. I was lucky enough to be given access to Vandenburg AFB at the last minute and I owe the guy there (yes you JP!) a massive debt of thanks as he was able to show me many of the more modern systems that I had not had access to before. He also provided contacts and as he had been in maintenance a portrait too. The other portraits were done over a three week period in CA and AZ. SO often close to the sites where they had worked. On my return I knew I needed to go to Ukraine again and do the portraits but my email had been ominously silent. I decided to go nonetheless and when I arrived it looked like we were not going to be able to shoot anyone. Everyone refused. I was convinced that the project was over. I didn’t even manage to get any response to my questionnaire.
Still, over a couple of days we managed to warm people up and we had a breakthrough when we managed to persuade the ex-commander to have his portrait done. After that the others were happy to go ahead and talked about their time freely although many of the most interesting quotes came during the shoot. There have been several books published since I started photographing including Eric Schlosser’s ‘Command and Control’ that explore the US side, but much less on the USSR’s side. However, I was glad to see it was recognized in the 2014 ‘The Man Who Saved The World’ Hollywood film. Its important to remember that a huge number of people were in a position to cause a catastrophic mistake.
What was it like being in the missile control room?
I’d done quite a bit of research so I had a reasonably good idea as to how things would look. Naturally as I only had access to either site for a short period and shooting on 8×10 in very low lit interiors takes some time, for the most part I was just totally focused on getting the images right. I can say however that the feel in both control rooms is a little bit chilling. They appear to be remarkably similar as well. The technology is of an age I suppose, but as one ex-Missileer pointed out when he saw my pictures they look like they’ve had the same decorator. However, there is one very big difference. The control room in the US was much, much bigger. Whilst it has evened out a bit more now the Control Room of a Titan II ICBM was enormous and the whole thing was placed on springs so that if there were a preemptive strike the equipment and crew would not be damaged by the seismic waves. In the USSR they had a simpler system they bored a hole just a few meters wide and placed the control room in a tube that they inserted into it. It was claimed that the protection given was equivalent using this technique. Instead of the room being on springs all of the crew were merely given sturdy belts to wear at all times. Whilst I’ve been keen to show the similarities in my photographs I have focused on these kinds of details that expose the differences ideologically.
Share to us the process on how you photographed the images in your series?
The images of the objects were all shot on an 8×10 film camera. I’m very keen to show the tiniest of details as I believe that this helps the viewer to imagine themselves in the position of the crew and staff themselves. If you can see the wear on the buttons and the scratches on the equipment and you can see these objects have been used on a daily basis. Using 8×10 will allows me to print to almost any size with little loss of quality and reveal all these tiny details. The process of 8×10 is very slow and unwieldy, sheet film and dark cloths in small spaces with 20 min+ exposures cause all sorts of problems as you can imagine.
As the objects are not moving this was the best approach, but I soon realized that if I was going to add some portraits to humanize the project still further these would need to be done digitally as I was keen to photograph the crews inside in an environment that reflected their personality now. (This was one of the requests to the subjects). I was keen to do this as I believe these places allow the viewer to imagine the personality of the sitter. In many ways it was my attempt to show these people who had had such enormous power as people we would not recognize in the street – heroes or demons invisible. I used a D800 as this had the highest resolution with the best noise reduction available at the time. I used a 50mm lens as this is reasonably close to what our eye’s focal length is and framed tightly when possible to reflect the photographs of the objects. My self imposed rule was to photograph full length to standardize the images so they could be seen as a series whilst allowing for each of their environments to be shown.
What is the message you want the series to convey to the viewers?
In short I would say ‘these things exist’. It’s easy to forget that we were under this ‘Sword of Damocles’ every day for decades. Indeed, there are still many thousands of warheads on alert as we speak. The argument that we need them to protect ourselves is persuasive, as is the argument that we need to be rid of them to protect ourselves. I just want people to consider their views. I don’t want them to act as if it never happened. The press is starting to use the term ‘Cold War 2.0’ and with the issues in Ukraine and now in Syria I think we desperately need to take some lessons from history. Photography can communicate this message not just through the black and white photographs of the time, but those that seek to examine history in the objects and faces of those that were there.
Lastly, share to us your next photography plans?
I’m currently looking for a publisher for the book that we’ve designed – you’ll find a beta of it on youtube and I’m in the middle of a project examining patriotism/nationalism in Transnistria. Transnistria is often described as a ‘breakaway state’ or ‘frozen conflict’. Its unrecognized by any UN state, but it has all the trappings or a state (police, army, flag, government, currency etc.) I’ve been photographing portraits of patriots which I hope will reflect on our own need for patriotism and attachment to a state. The Transnistrian conflict also has a lot of ties to Russia and reflects the situation in South Eastern Ukraine in some ways so its very relevant at this moment.
To see more of Justin Barton’s impressive photography series, please check out his official website at Justin Barton Photography.