Saturday, May 11, 2019

Photographing Chernobyl

The area around the Chernobyl reactor is a heavily photographed area. During my periodic checkin on Medium Format Magazine, which has struck me as hilarious since inception, I found this article, Photographing Chernobyl, on the free list, and skimmed it. I said to myself, self, these pictures sure look familiar.

So I went hunting around to see what's what. This is pretty interesting.

The reason all Chernobyl photos looks similar is because they are similar. There is fairly obviously A Tour that includes a startling small number of locations, through which photographers are briskly marched. I am going to ruthlessly lift photos from all over the place without regard for copyright because, in the first place, I am performing criticism, and in the second place it is not clear there is a copyrightable originality in any of these things, as I will demonstrate.

Exhibit A, the danger sign:

Google something like "Chernobyl danger sign barbed wire" and you will find dozens, possibly hundreds, of photos of this sign. Not this sign design, but this actual literal sign. The arrangement of barbed wire and the building in the background are distinctive. There may be 100s of these signs on miles of fencing for all I know, but this one is the sign that's On The Tour, so everyone photographs it.

The sign moves around a bit. Clearly it falls out of the fence, or falls askew, from time to time, and is put back. By the tour guides? Photographers? Who knows.

Exhibit B, the sea of gas masks with doll:

The story here is that there is a room somewhere in what looks like a school, where there are gas masks on the floor. People have brought in dolls and posed them in this room over the years. The dolls move around, are reposed, and in these modern times have largely disintegrated. They have great patina, eh? That's the grease of a million photographer fingers.

The one thing we know for sure is that this doll was not abandoned by a child on the day of the accident, and left reverently in place. It was probably brought from elsewhere in the area, or just as likely brought in by some photographer as a prop.

Now, this is where it gets fascinating. See the table with the shell of the TV in the foreground? Make a note of that.

Another canonical photo from Your Big Expensive Chernobyl Adventure is the school notebook.

Look at that. The notebook, abandoned one the very day of the accident, undisturbed for decades.

Nah, the notebooks move around constantly. And hey, remember the table with the busted TV on it? Same fuckin' table. Look closely.

There's A Room with the sea of gas masks, the dolls, the table, the notebooks, and clearly photographers go in there and reverentially photograph various closeups over the course of 2 or 3 minutes, creating the impression of many locations (except for the cheaters with the wide angle lenses who give the show away.) Sometimes stuff gets moved around to look better. There's a reason the gas mask is so elegantly draped behind the notebook.

It goes on and on. There are the bumper cars at the fairground, constantly moving around and getting more graffiti, there's the ferris wheel at the same location. The interior of the under-construction cooling tower and.. well, actually that's pretty close to it. There's a handful of other vaguely snapshotty things people pick up here and there, but that is basically the tour.

The standard tour includes something like 10 locations, each are visited pretty quickly. Everyone shoots the same things, sometimes after moving some shit around and then sprinkling dust over it all to look authentically abandoned. And then they go home.

I kind of get why one might do it as a tourist. Sure, these photos all exist, but these ones are my photos. You have, as it were, proof that you were there and that you did the thing. You have personalized memory-triggers of having done the thing.

What does not make sense is publishing this in a would-be serious magazine of Medium Format Photography, or more generally the once-every-couple-years articles in semi-serious photo news sources, The Abandoned World of Chernobyl!, or whatever, as if someone went and did some journalism rather than simply taking the tour.

I am reminded of Maria Lopez, who a few years ago did an Art Thing about the Cambodian Killing Fields, discussed in some remarks of mine over here. She went on The Tour, took The Snaps, and pretended it was a serious photo essay. Maria herself seems to have vanished from the web, or at any rate from the photography part. Presumably she gave up her dream of becoming a serious artist, and went back to her day job (middle management at NGOs, maybe? There were a flock of these people mobbing Souvid Datta a couple years ago, mostly professional NGO types.)


  1. Savage! But well spotted, and completely bang to rights... Interesting to compare and contrast with Andy's Excellent Indian Adventure, though, and other similar touristic offerings? Certainly, his take on a well-trodden topic does benefit from a certain unpretentious authenticity, and the undoubted quality of his edited and sequenced bookwork is a different question, of course.

    It all goes to show that photography is not just about "access" (which can be faked or bought) but the originality of the eye (which cannot).


  2. Slightly off-topic, I recommend Martin Cruz Smith's novel, Wolves Eat Dogs, that was partly set in Chernobyl. Some haunting passages. It is part of his series about Inspector Arkady Renko.

  3. "the grease of a million photographer fingers"

    I think that's your best phrasing.

  4. Beautiful. As it says in the Medium Format article, "We left the sequence to Nikolai to decide. He was very experienced with the sites and what photographers want."

  5. Isn't this the way of popular photography these days? Look how the US National Parks are being destroyed by idiots that take the same photos over and over and over again. Everytime I see ads for workshops based off of 'location' I gringed. Great post!

    1. It might just be me, but I feel less cheated by the National Park trophy photos. Ok, so it's just another picture of Grand prismatic spring. Even if I don't know the object, I know all those photos are of the same thing.

      With Chernobyl I seem to have developed the idea that there are many rooms with broken dolls, with gas masks, with abandoned notebooks. And to be sure, there must be, right?

      But so many of the photos are of the same room. It seems as if the game is to make it appear like one of many, but it's really just one.

      It feels like in the 1000 square miles of the exclusion zone, most of the photos we see are taken in a handful of areas each only a few square yards big. Where is the rest of it?

      But that might just be me.

    2. If I understand your dissatisfaction with the Chernobyl photos, it sounds like you expect there to be a larger variety of “props” photographed because the article appears on the medium format (MF) online magazine. But as you already know, the items photographed were not originally there because of radiation contamination, and the area had to get cleaned-up before people could enter. That area is still not good for your health so I do not know why anyone would want to go and chance it, but that is probably where the “charm” of the article is and why it is on the MF magazine site.

      I shoot MF digital (and film) and have a small group of MF photographer friends. We do not give that site any attention because it is just another marketing venture to lure people who shoot expensive gear in. I am sure they sell workshops, hats, books, etc. and have dealers contributing somehow to get entry to their members. For me in particular there is one name on their list of contributors I would never give financial support to as I find him especially rabid. That site is an old boys club with money; as a female photographer I can smell them a mile away!

      I do not feel “cheated by the National Park trophy photos,” I feel sick to my stomach because we are losing not just natural resources, but wildlife on an exponential level. What happens when nature goes viral?

  6. The story of lost Innocence, hubris, failure and the need to be emotionally shocked. Kind of a battle-field tourism. Now it is a restricted area and we are, as humans, very restricted in our faculty to find and create meaningful symbols.
    Similar to pics of Green Boots ( ) .

  7. I can recommend the HBO mini-series, "Chernobyl," which I'm watching now. As for going to the actual location, no thanks, for a number of reasons--not least of which is my repulsion at disaster tourism, which I believe disregards the people who died in favor of a photo op.

  8. In case you're interested in some original material from Chernobyl, here are two pieces:

    * One of the first photos (this is of course debatable claim) of Chernobyl to emerge on the internet were by Elena Filatova, available now here: and here: (both with awful navigation, but they already contain the standard pieces: gas masks&dolls, empty swimming pool, ferris wheel, etc)

    * One of the most impactful pieces of work from Chernobyl (at least for me):

    I also have to add that there was scientific study conducted in Estonia about the health of Estonian men involved in Chernobyl cleanup (people who were in Soviet army at the time and were involuntarily sent there, they of course were exposed to radiation for shorter period than locals depicted in Paul Fusco's essay) and it didn't show increased risk of cancer, but instead a lot of mental issues - depression, alcoholism, increased amount of suidcides.

    Also, I have to express my dissatisfaction with the way environmental issues are shown in photography. Just random googling about Chernobyl pointed me to the work of Gerd Ludwig - he's an author of book about Chernobyl, longtime NatGeo contributor, etc. Sounds credible.

    Then I found this photo: (Geiger counter to the max, sounds like end of the world)

    I lived for 6 years within 3 kilometers from the place where the photo is taken (many people in Sillamäe have for 60-70 years):

    I've photographed it myself: during the ninties and again in 2009:

    Just a different perspective.

    This is just one example and I'm not saying there're no environmental issues, I'm saying it's pretty hard to photograph them without overexagerrating.