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.
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 bit time to philosophise. 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.
Written in 2014.
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 facility. But I was constantly reassured by my guide that it was 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 as the result of an explosion – a catastrophic event that would roll on to have sinister affects over many parts of Europe for years to come. It’s estimated that thousands of cancer cases have been attributable to the Chernobyl disaster and 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 reactor - its unthoughtful and insulting to the Ukrainian people (and you’re not at the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty).
Reaching Pripyat, I entered as many buildings as I could with my Canon (at the time, a small 50D), and snapped what felt like hundreds of interiors from hotel rooms to civic offices and factory spaces to gymnasiums. Stepping over the patches of moss that dotted the cracked concrete footpaths and roads, I went from building to building, wading through dishevelled rooms to explore each interior as thoroughly as possible. I’ve since learned that entering the cities buildings is forbidden after a government crack-down in 2012 - the result of a tourist injuring themselves.
We spent four days in the zone with accommodation in what was the Chernobyl tow ‘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 ventures. I spent most of my time in the hospital, exploring as many patient wards and operating theatres as possible. Having a playful fascination with the macabre and a love of horror movies, I found these dark and mould covered spaces really intriguing and beautiful. I remember the soil-like smell of mould permeating the rooms and that stench of mildew from the decayed furniture stinging my nose – but I liked it. 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 left there back in 1986. I explored doctor’s rooms and treatment areas filled with x-rays, journals and photos - although you’re not supposed to touch anything with your hands, curiosity caused me to break the rules and I fossicked through a few tattered patient artefacts and wondered where these people were now.
Exploring the hallways and classrooms of Pripyat’s schools filled me with a reflective wonderment…these derelict spaces strewn with books, school projects and educational Soviet artefacts of the past had become vintage time capsules.
There is an incredible beauty found in the lush nature and overgrowth that engulfs this city. 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.
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 and it will stay with you forever.
- This body of work was exhibited in Melbourne in 2011 under the title ‘Pripyat’