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Exploring Chernobyl

A flawed reactor combined with inadequately trained personnel led to Chernobyl’s catastrophic nuclear meltdown on 26 April 1986. Within days, the nearby town of Pripyat, the civic area that housed thousands of the plants workers and families, underwent a mass evacuation. Declared a permanent zone of exclusion and deemed unliveable for years to come, the city now sits in silence as nature swallows up the crumbling remnants of a once industrious Soviet era township.

Recent interest in the Chernobyl incident has grown since the airing of HBO’s successful miniseries. Acclaimed by critics, the dramatization depicts the disaster, its catastrophic consequences and the clean-up that followed.

Inside Chernobyl’s ruins you have the ability to contrast time against the longevity of humanity. It’s many overgrown spaces are realms where we can face our mortalities and spend a little time to philosophise and ponder the human quandary. Each derelict space is like a stage filled with forgotten props. Speaking of happy family moments and human darkness, of working lives and the everyday pursuits of living, these inanimate scenes allow the observer to reconstruct the erased stories of the past – and by attaching these narratives to our own identities, we begin to better understand ourselves. Like myself, you might conclude at the end of your experience that at our existence is brief in comparison to the structures we build and leave behind – time continues, yet we do not. But regardless of the thoughts and wisdoms you walk away with, one can’t argue that a visit to Chernobyl is powerful.

My first trip to the exclusion zone in 2010 was met with a mixture of fear and adventure. The ‘will I get sick’ question did play on my mind (and because the reactor was still exposed, my fears were a little more amplified). I remember my Geiger counter letting out these high-pitched squeaks and squawks each time we drove past the stricken power plant with its sinster chimney pointing upwards. But I was constantly reassured by my guide that it was all ok (as he closed off the car vents and ensured the windows were tightly wound up).

It was important not to allow my desire for adventure override the sombre, sad fact that I was visiting a place where a number of people lost their lives - 36 directly from the explosion and a further 29 firefighters from radiation exposure. This catastrophe also rolled on to have sinister affects over many parts of Europe and it’s estimated that thousands of cancer cases have been attributable to the disaster - the legacy mural that greets you on arrival is an immediate reminder of this.

It’s imperative that any visitor keep’s these facts in their minds and in their hearts. This is a sad place - not a cool abandoned city for heroic explorers to exploit for the purposes of click bait. And please don’t take selfies with big smiles standing in front of the sarcophagus - this is unthoughtful and insulting to the Ukrainian people (you’re also not at the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty).

In 2010 the process of going to Chernobyl was still a little underground. The tour felt unofficial and unplanned – but I liked it like this. It seemed raw and unsterile and I was in Ukraine of all places – a country I found exciting and off the beaten track. When I finally reached Pripyat, I entered a number of buildings and snapped what felt like hundreds of interiors from hotel rooms to civic offices and factory spaces to gymnasiums. Stepping cautiously over the radioactive patches of moss that dotted the cracked concrete footpaths and roads, I went from building to building, wandering through dishevelled rooms to explore each interior as thoroughly as possible.

The experience of Chernobyl stayed with me for many months and I found myself dreaming of its deserted overgrown streets and dilapidated cityscape. It became an obsession that drove me to organise a second trip with two of my friends the following year.

We spent four days in the zone with accommodation in what was the Chernobyl town compound or ‘Hotel’. We hired a private guide who drove us into Pripyat each morning. Dropping us off at the towns centre, we didn’t stick together and instead ran off in different directions to embark on our own solo explorations. I spent most of my time in the hospital, photographing as many derelict patient wards and operating theatres as possible.

A lover of horror movies and eerie environments, I found these dour, mould covered spaces so intriguing. I remember that soil-like smell of mould filling the rooms and that harsh stench of mildew from the decayed furniture stinging my nose – but I loved it (only abandoned enthusiasts can really relate to this sensation).

The dried-up plants sitting in pots on the floors of waiting rooms and the dust covered piles of books on side tables filled me with awe – all unmoved since 1986. I explored doctor’s rooms and treatment areas filled with x-rays, journals and photos and wondered what happened to these people – were they still alive somewhere?

Exploring the hallways and classrooms of Pripyat’s schools filled me with a reflection and wonderment. These derelict spaces littered with books, school projects and Soviet artefacts had literally become vintage time capsules.

There is an incredible beauty found in the lush nature and overgrowth that engulfs Chernobyl. Plants, insects, birds and animals all thrive in the space and add an enchanting, organic visual that contrasts the drab, grey, concrete brutalist architecture that juts upwards from the greenery. It’s unknown what will become of the area in the coming years, but the initiative to cover the reactor with a giant sarcophagus has since been fulfilled making the zone a little safer (and the Geiger counters a little quieter).

Chernobyl is an interesting place to visit if you’re after something a little different from the usual tourist norm. It’s a space where sadness and philosophy clash with the visual wonderment of Mother Nature – the experience stays with you forever.

I exhibited the body of work titled ‘Pripyat’ in Melbourne, 2011

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