Not Glowing In The Dark

Tales of My Photographic Visits to Chernobyl
by Michael Palmer September 02 2018

If you’d have told me five years ago that I’d get to visit Chernobyl, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. Fast forward to the present day and I’ve been lucky enough to visit this amazing place eight times being able to experience it during all four seasons.

In 2013 I was having a conversation with some of my Photo Experience Days clients at a hotel bar in the New Forest when one of them said, “why don’t you run a trip to Chernobyl”. A few minutes on Google later and it was possible, there were companies doing tours there from Kyiv.

Originally 10 people signed up to go on the first trip in the spring of 2014, although a few dropped out due to the unrest in Kyiv at the time of our trip. It was, and probably always will be, the most memorable trip of my life. The flights there and back were mostly empty, I think I counted 25 people, including the 6 of us on the flight back to London. Kyiv airport was all but deserted. What had we let ourselves in for?

We’d booked a two day private tour into the Chernobyl Zone, overnighting in a “hotel” there. We were met by our guide at our hotel, he was wearing all military clothing, and two minutes up the road he gets pulled over by the police for doing an illegal left turn. Oh my! He spoke good English and was friendly and knowledgeable.

We were driving for around 2 hours before we reached the rather ominous looking 30km checkpoint. A bit of waiting around, and then a passport check from some very serious looking guards and we were in.

The next two days were an exhausting blur, but we got to see so many things; the Ferris wheel, swimming pool, hospital, duga radar, the cooling towers, a fish farm, a supermarket, a school, and of course, the iconic Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station with the outline of reactor number 4 still visible (it’s since been covered over by the new sarcophagus).

Despite nearly freezing to death in the hotel that night - no heating, paper thin blankets and wearing every layer (including gloves, hat) I had with me - I was not a happy camper that following morning, it was the most incredible experience.

As it turned out, we’d lucked out with our guide - he’d taken the Top Gear team in during their visit there and 7 trips with him (or his wife) later and I’m not sure I’d want to visit with anyone else. No, I am sure, I wouldn’t want to go into the zone with anyone else

It’s only when you visit during different seasons that you really get the feel of Chernobyl, or more precisely the town of Pripyat. During the summer the trees take over so much that it’s almost impossible to see the buildings that are just a few metres away from the road. The one time I’ve visited in the winter, with snow thick on the ground, I could see buildings I’ve never seen before through the trees.

Tourism is becoming more and more popular in the zone, with queues of vehicles waiting at the 30km checkpoint to get in every day. Once inside the zone, you can with a private tour 2 or 3 day tour avoid them. For me the nature of some of the tour companies is upsetting. The signs that made the 30 km that much more memorable have gone, replaced with an ugly bright yellow souvenir booth. Urgh.

If you just want to visit the zone, take a few selfies, then get yourself on a 1-day trip with the beepers (the name we’ve given to the tourists who have their dosimeter warning level set so low that it literally beeps for the whole time they are in the zone), but if you really want to experience the zone, you’ll need 2 or 3 days there.

Some highlights of my trips have been:

  • Visiting in winter, when it was averaging 10 below freezing and being able to go for a walk on a lake. The fresh snow, the silence, the almost monochromatic nature of everything.
  • I have a bit of a thing for moose, and I know moose live inside the zone and have even been seen inside Pripyat, but it took me until my seventh trip, in winter, along a road to the northern villages that most tourists don’t visit to see one and it was awesome!
  • Getting to go inside of the power station, was something rather special. Although they don’t let you visit any of the reactors (numbers 1, 2 and 3 are safe), we did get to visit a control room that looks the same as the one at Reactor 4. We also got to see a turbine hall and touch the wall that separates us from Reactor 4.

Most of the local workers you see seem to just tolerate the tourists and don’t want to have anything to do with them, which I can kind of understand. However, that’s not been my experience with Ukrainians overall who, despite the language barriers have been mostly friendly and helpful.

One time we got to meet a resettler, so called because she returned to her home in Chernobyl after being told to leave. She worked the land around her house for food, lived a hard life, without running water, gas, or electricity, but the look on her face on the one photo I took of her says it all. She was happy. Sadly, she died a couple of years later, she was 80-something.

The other time we met some workers on the railway line, they were tightening the bolts on track, in the middle of winter, using only manual tools - man those were some tough guys. They told us (though our guide) that we were the first Westerners they’d ever met.

I try to see and photograph different things and ways on every trip, and on the most recent one (August 2018), I took my Benro Slim Carbon tripod with me and I tried some infrared photography, using a filter, and some HDR.

The Slim is the smallest proper tripod I have, and by proper, I mean one that you don’t have to twist around a fence post to use. It’s a compromise, but its size and weight (around a kilogram) sometimes means the difference between a tripod and no tripod. While I doubt it would stand up to a windy day in the Highlands of Scotland very well, it has proved useful hiking around New York City, and again on my last trip to Chernobyl. It packs down small enough to fit into a carry-on bag and can even be stored in the side pocket of a car door.

I can’t really talk about Chernobyl without touching on radiation. Most times when I mention my trips there I get the old “oh you’re going to glow in the dark” joke. Truth is, yes there are hotspots, where the radiation is a fair bit higher than normal, but is it dangerous? Well no, you’ll get around three times the amount of radiation on your flight from London to Kyiv as you will from a whole day in the zone.

Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention Simon. Simon is a fox that lives in Pripyat, you can often find him in the abandoned city, and if you are very lucky, he’ll let you hand feed him. He’s a very special fox.

If you’d like more information on my Photo Experience Days trips to Chernobyl, please take a look at the website. I normally run between 1 and 3 trips a year depending on interest.

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