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Photography exhibit explores 70 years of 'incredible' history at Savannah River Site

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Currently displayed in the Aiken Center for the Arts' expansive first-floor gallery are two tales of the Savannah River Site: the past and the present.

The center's exhibit – "Beyond the Barricade" – celebrates the 70th anniversary of the site and displays a combination of 80 photographs taken by a handful of the Savannah River Site's 11,000 employees, as well as a series of graphics and photos deciphering the earliest days of construction.

The modern photography of "Beyond the Barricade" was originally part of the site's 2019 and 2020 Snap SRS photography contest, which displays the top 20 winners from four categories: SRS Scenery, Science as Art, Nuclear Knowledge and Local Scenery. Having the four categories ensured that all entities of the site were represented in the contest, and that not one group dominated the others, said Caroline Reppert, one the founders of the contest.

"[The contest] gave employees an outlet to share their creative work and network with other people," Reppert said. "I have the pleasure of meeting people through Snap SRS that I probably wouldn't have met otherwise."

The older photos in the exhibit – the black and white ones that are obviously from a much simpler time – are a different story.  

History in the taking

Deciding which older photos to display took a great deal of time and care, said Laura Russo, a media specialist for Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, the management and operations contractor for the site.

Russo was responsible for providing the historical photos and their captions. Her overall job on the site since her start there four years ago has been to capture the ongoing changes at SRS.

Thousands of photos from before, during, and after the site was constructed have been slowly digitalized at the curation facility on the Savannah River Site, many of which were used in both the Savannah River Site at Fifty (1950-2000) anniversary book, as well as in the current ACA exhibit. 

"Every moment in time is documented out here; it's pretty incredible," Russo said. "This is a very fluid site. There's always something going in or something going out ... it's non-stop, and it has been since the 1950s."

Deciding on what photos would be used in the exhibit was exceptionally hard, Russo said, as so many moments that were captured show the impact the site's creation had on the workers.

The majority of the historic photos on display were taken before the site was built, Russo said, and creates a "well-rounded picture" of how the site came to be as images of trailer camps, building construction, and a prominent photo of hundreds of SRS employees leaving the site after a day of work adorn the walls. 

"We wanted to show what it took to move these towns and the camaraderie that was in these camps, and then the people who had to come together to build this facility."

Capturing the impact

After 70 years, SRS continues to impact the Aiken County community and beyond. Generations of families have taken up work there as new opportunities continue to present themselves.

Barbara Smoak, public relations and media contact for Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, was one of the developers of the exhibit and has personally witnessed the impact in both the photographers' art, as well as with some of its spectators. 

During the exhibit, a woman, who Smoak came to find out was one of the employees on the site when construction first started, had an emotional reaction to the historical images. 

"She was in her 80s ... and she was able to walk through and look at all these historical images and explain it to her grandsons," Smoak recalled. "It ended up being a very neat thing that she was able to do."

From a more modern perspective, such images like site security employee Mckenzie Brown's "Let There Be," an image that deciphers one of the lily ponds on the site, captures not only the spirit of the site but also that of the people on it, Smoak said. 

"This is someone who comes to work and straps on a gun every day, and his view of the site is this beautiful lily pond ... so it gives [site employees] an opportunity to talk about the beauty that they find on and in the area. To me, that spoke volumes." 

One of Brown's other works, "Essential," deciphers another modern but historic event: the coronavirus pandemic. 

Deciphered in the image is a man in uniform with a blue American flag face mask, a reminder of 2020's impact on the country and the world.

Despite the pandemic, the 2020 Snap SRS contest rendered more entries than last year, Smoak said.

"We weren't sure if we'd have many entries because we had so many people teleworking ... but we actually got more," Smoak said. 

Final days of exhibit

The "Beyond the Barricade" exhibit will remain on display at the Aiken Center for the Arts, 122 Laurens St. S.W., until Oct. 23. However, due to its popularity, the exhibit will be moved to the Arts and Heritage Center of North Augusta by the end of the month.

A small collection will then be curated at the SRS Museum in Aiken. 

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