Why on earth did you go to Chernobyl?

As a photographer, my main object of interest are places where man-made order collides with natural chaos: Abandoned factories, houses, military installations, hospitals, and other human structures that have been left to die. The activity of visiting and documenting such places is known as urban exploration of abandonments. It combines elements of archeology, art and extreme sports with a strong interest in architecture and industrial history.

Back in the 19th century, families used to photograph their dead loved ones (NSFW) shortly before burying them and keep the photos as memento mori; in a way, urban explorers take similar post-mortem photographs, albeit of buildings and structures, not people.

Chernobyl and Prypiat are, from an urban exploration point of view is a unique location for several reasons:

  1. The former inhabitants of the surrounding cities left the area over night, leaving most of their houses as they were;
  2. A 19 kilometer exclusion zone has been erected around the power plant, letting only authorized persons entering the area;
  3. Nobody is allowed to live in the area (with some exceptions) for the next couple of hundred years.

All in all, Prypiat and Chernobyl are ghost towns whose existence documents one of the most significant man-made disasters in history. It’s also an urban explorer’s dream come true; and with appropriate safety precautions not that dangerous as you might think.

Wasn’t that a really dangerous thing to do? What about the radiation?

The short answer: I took a calculated risk. The radiation is not that high anymore (90% of it disappeared during the first year after the accident), and I took safety precautions. The radiation dose I received during the trip was half the amount you get when getting your teeth x-rayed at the dentist. Flying to Kiev will expose you to more radiation than the trip itself.

The long answer: See the “Radiation” blog post.

How did you protect yourself in the zone?

From what I know (and I’m not an expert – don’t take my word for it), there are four ways you can protect yourself against radiation:

  1. Shielding: You protect yourself with enough dense material to keep the rays out. For alpha and beta radiation, normal clothing is enough, while for gamma radiation, you’ll need a lot of lead, which quickly becomes impractical.
  2. Reduce exposure time: Simply spend less time in contaminated areas.
  3. Reduce distance: Radiation exposure decreases exponentially with the distance, which means you get a lot of protection by just stepping away from the source. For this reason, radioactive materials are often handled using long poles and other proxies.
  4. Reduce amount: If you have the choice (for example in a lab or hospital), just use less radioactive material. Obviously, that’s not a choice in the zone.

I protected myself first and foremost by staying out of highly contaminated areas (3), by wearing sturdy clothing and shoes, as well as a dust mask inside buildings (1), and by not touching anything that my Geiger counter said was contaminated, such as moss patches (3), and by not eating/drinking/smoking except in the van (3).

I want to go to Chernobyl myself. What do I need to do?

The more interest Chernobyl generates, the easier it gets to go there. There are two options:

  1. What most people do: Book one of the many Chernobyl bus tour through a Kiev travel agent. Wikitravel has a list of available agencies, otherwise just google for it.
  2. What we did: Organize a guided tour through the Chernobyl InterInform agency. Knowledge of Russian is highly recommended.

Note that 2011 will be the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, which is going to create a huge wave of interest. It’s going to be difficult to book a tour for some time.

Can you just go into the zone?

No, you can’t, and you shouldn’t. To visit the zone of exclusion, you need a permit and an official guide. Going there by yourself is really dangerous, and you won’t make it passed the many security checkpoints.

What about that woman who drove through the zone on her bike?

That’s an urban legend. Elena Filatova‘s account of her riding through the zone was an elaborate art project – she booked a tour like everyone else. Still, Filatova’s account is a fantastic read, and I congratulate her for it!. Don’t believe me? Check out her Wikipedia entry, or read Mary Mycio’s book Wormwood Forest if you don’t believe me.

Are the strong colors in your pictures real?

No, they are not. All my Chernobyl pictures are shot in High Dynamic Range (HDR), which increases contrast and saturation.

Why did you shoot in HDR?

I usually don’t shoot in HDR. The choice to do the Chernobyl Journal in HDR was a deliberate one – I wanted to contrast the desolate surroundings in the zone with unusually rich and alien colors. My collection of 450 HDR Chernobyl pictures is probably the biggest on the internet, and they are all licensed under Creative Commons.

No, seriously, why HDR?! HDR is terrible! HDR is overrated! HDR is the image equivalent to autotune! You will burn in hell for using HDR! [and other HDR flames]

Don’t like it? You’re in the minority. There are enough non-HDR Chernobyl pictures on the internet. I’m sure you’ll find something you like.

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