RECLAMATION PROJECT: "CONCRETE JUNGLE" From the top of an abandoned 16 floor apartment block. A cluster of smaller, also abandoned, blocks are becoming dwarfed by the trees that have been allowed to grow naturally between the buildings. © Andrew Hocking 2019
My recent tour of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was an experience of a lifetime - and certainly not without incident! Here I'll share my experience, my adjustment to Ukraine culture, and how I approached photographing this epic part of the world - interspersed with my favourite photos from the trip of course. The first two of these "incidents" took place within hours, even minutes of touching down at Kyiv Bituminous International Airport...
Incident #1 - lost camera... at the start of a photography trip!...
The first bit of drama was my own doing. I somehow managed to leave my camera on the plane! As you can imagine, I was pretty stressed... The fact that I had lost an item worth more than a month's wage was softened to some extent by the reassurance I had insured it prior to the trip. The biggest blow though, was that this was a photography trip. For months, I had researched and familiarised myself with locations, wrote a pre-trip blog (Chernobyl, Here I Come!) promising my social media followers images. But most of all - I was just so looking forward to photographing such a unique location.
So this leads me to my first experience of Ukraine customer service and hospitality. Having realised my camera bag felt a little light at baggage reclaim, I ran back to passport control, who passed me on to no less than three "lost & found" desks and a store room, before finishing up at an "Information Desk." I can honestly say that not one of these "International Airport" employees spoke much more English than "no English" and/or "you must go over there." In fact their lack of understanding of the most commonly spoken language on the planet was only matched by their lack of willingness to help me - a customer in obvious distress. Even though I was with a group of 20, I suddenly felt very much alone in a foreign country.
I could elaborate on this part of my experience - but at the risk of it sounding like a Trip Advisor rant, I'll leave it there. Except to say that the next day, with the help of a receptionist serving as a seemingly reluctant translator at our hotel in Kyiv, I established that my camera was found and waiting for me at the airport. With our bus due to collect us within the hour though, I had no time to rush back to the airport and grab it. After hours of agonising since realise, I was forced to draw a line under it and try to enjoy the Chernobyl visit as much as possible without my camera.
Thankfully though, the complete lack of service at Kyiv Bituminous International Airport was completely compensated for by a generous gesture of our Chernobyl tour guide. He went above & beyond by lending me his pretty expensive camera - a Fuji X-T2! (Having used this for 3 days, I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a mirror-less camera).
My mood immediately lifted. Even though the contents of my camera bag (consisting of filters, a tripod and other accessories) were not compatible and almost totally useless, I now at least had the use of a camera - and a very good one at that!
Incident #2... bomb scare!...
But wait, didn't I say there were two incidents within hours of touching down? Indeed I did!... Jumping back to the night before, while I was still holding my head in my hands, we arrived at "Hotel Tourist" in Kyiv.
Upon arrival, the entrance to the building was halfheartedly cordoned off with red & white barrier tape. A single police car was parked outside. News filtered to our group that the hotel was subject to a bomb scare!
*Image of the fire engine outside our hotel courtesy of my friend, Joe*
© Joseph Hope-Devereux 2019
It seems that bomb scares in Ukraine are a very low-key affair. We were allowed to drop our bags inside - in a locked room (or so we were told). As we walked through the lobby, we passed half-a-dozen or so police officers sat around doing not a lot - making our council road workers look positively industrious!
With the prospect of being without a bed for the night, our group decided to eat at a pizza restaurant across from the hotel - to refuel and keep an eye on proceedings. At this point, some of us were becoming a little agitated. But "luckily" for me, I still had my lost camera to take my mind off the unfolding events - as I tried desperately to find a local shop on Google Maps to buy a new one!
As the evening drew on, a fire engine stopped by, before a single police sniffer dog unit was sent into the 22 story hotel to search for the threat. By around 11.30pm, we were allowed into the hotel - and straight to bed for all of our travel weary party.
As I mentioned in my pre-travel blog article (Cherobyl, Here I Come!), many of my travel companions were self-confessed bus nerds (or "Veges" as they would put it!)
So, having expressed an interest in all things buses - especially of the vintage variety, our tour guide managed to get hold of a 1970's Ukrainian LAZ bus and driver, instead of his company's usual leather-clad Mercedes Sprinter. This made the veges very happy! And for me, having watched the first few episodes of HBO's "Chernobyl" series currently airing on Sky TV, and seeing the same buses - it has added some historical authenticity to our visit.
Our driver, Vadim drove from his home town 80 kilometres east of Kyiv to collect us. At a guess I'd say he was in his 40s-50s, yet amazingly, we were told he had never seen a foreigner! He also seemed a little in-the-dark about Chernobyl. Our tour guide reported that Vadim occasionally expressed a little concern while inside the exclusion zone.
Not a photo of our "LAZ" bus, but a 1970's "MAZ-504" taken near Yaniv Train Station on day two. With a grey, overcast sky and very flat light - not ideal for wider shots, I decided to look for abstract details.
© Andrew Hocking 2019
Our 1970's LAZ comfortably chugged the 100 kilometres or so north to the town Chernobyl, where we stayed for two nights. As we headed further from the affluent capital city, the buildings at the roadside diminished in status. The divide between the rich and poor seemed strikingly wide.
As we entered a contraflow over a partially collapsed bridge, our tour guide quipped - "In the UK, you drive on the left... In Ukraine, we drive on what's left" - which brought a round of laughter to the bus!
Our bus drew near the militarised 30 km exclusion zone checkpoint and we were advised not to take photos of the guards or security measures. Our guide told us that officially, we were not there as tourists, but in a more official capacity such as journalists. I think this might have been a standard white lie to keep tour groups in good behaviour while passing checkpoints!
We all exited the bus, returning one-by-one as our passports were cross-referenced with our government permits (pre-arranged by the tour guide). We then drove through the checkpoint - hopping back out to receive dosimeters on lanyards to be worn at all times to measure our exposure to radiation.
When all the i's were dotted and t's crossed, we proceeded into the zone...
Personal project: "Reclamation"...
Visiting in springtime, as even my garden back home is beginning to succumb to nature, I made it a personal project to depict nature reclaiming the zone in my photography. (My "Reclamation" shots are shown throughout this article)
I chose to do this in order to give my image making process a sense of purpose when searching for compositions, and to impose the kind of limitations and challenges that I hoped would help enhance creativity. Of course, I was additionally challenged by having to learn how to use a new camera - the borrowed Fuji X-T2 (which I must say was very intuitive and a joy to use) - and shooting handheld as my tripod shoe was still attached to my own camera - languishing in the airport lost & found.
Although I was in the amazing surroundings of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, it took me a while to get into the "Photography Zone" - maybe as I was out of my comfort zone (all these zones!) of landscapes & seascapes, or maybe because it took a short while to settle into a slow, considered approach - when firing off the shutter at every opportunity around me was very tempting.
RECLAMATION PROJECT: "THRIVE" Trees growing out of a sports hall floor in Pripyat. © Andrew Hocking 2019
I did though, bag one "Reclamation" themed shot on day one (pictured above) - a couple of trees growing out of the first floor of a sports hall. The roots must have spread within the floor cavity from a seed. It was at that moment that I realised that good "Reclamation" compositions were there to be found.
Another reason I set myself a personal project, was to limit the amount of photos I took. Although I like taking photos, I'm not a massive fan of sifting through hundreds of files when I get home. Typically, during a two hour wander with the camera, I'll aim take somewhere in the region of 3-10 compositions.
This can be up to 100 or so exposures when dealing with moving water or changing light, but I'll usually end up with just two or three edited photos from a trip.
I set out with the mindset not to take the obvious / cliche shots. Especially with the light against me, I knew that any "honeypot" image I made would be outdone by many others out there taken in more favourable conditions. But, when in Rome!...
"DODGEY" Abandoned dodgems at the Pripyat fairground - due to open two days after the power plant explosion. © Andrew Hocking 2019
Cloudy, with a silver lining...
Throughout our three days in the zone, conditions were far from ideal for the epic "hero" images I had hoped to make. Thick cloud persisted - casting dull, flat light under a bland sky. Only fleeting glimmers of sunlight broke through on day two, while a passing thunderstorm drove us inside on day three. It's the luck of draw I guess.
"URBEXER JOE" My friend, Joe - as we took cover from a thunderstorm in Pripyat's abandoned fire station. This shaft of light was asking for a focal point - to which Joe obliged! © Andrew Hocking 2019
But as they say, every cloud has a silver lining - and there are a few reasons I can think of why cloudy skies on this trip could be seen as advantageous...
A) Ukraine can be hot in Summer - a few degrees Celsius more than we are used to in the UK. Combine that with the requirement to wear trousers and long sleeved tops in the exclusion zone as a precaution against coming into contact with radioactive dust, and walking around 15 miles per day - it could have got uncomfortably warm and sweaty.
2) Flat light is usually a massive irritant to landscape photographers as scenes become unsaturated and 3 dimensional objects undefined by light and shade. However it also meant that I was able to shoot in any direction without being concerned by shooting into the sun, or if the focal point is in shade - while all the time pretty well sticking with the group.
RECLAMATION PROJECT: "PIONEER" Possibly my favourite photo from the trip: While roaming the second floor of a military building at the Duga Radar base, I found this sapling leaning towards the light through a window. © Andrew Hocking 2019
I managed to find light & shade on occasions where soft light poured into buildings through windows. Pictured above, while roaming the second floor of a military building at the Duga Radar base on day 2 in the zone, I found this sapling leaning towards the light through a window. This is known as "phototropism." I thought that it made an interesting composition and tells the story of nature reclaiming the ghost town of Pripyat - exactly what I was looking to shoot!
And D) In my experience, flat light under cloudy skies tend remain pretty constant. No sunrise or sunsets timescales to be fixated on (our itinerary wouldn't have allowed for them anyway), and no harsh light to contend with in the middle of the day meant that if I looked hard enough, there were reasonable, but not epic shots to be had all day long.
The story of Duga...
On day two, our tour guide took us to the Duga radar (nicknamed the "Woodpecker" after the sound it made while in use) - a monstrous 150m high x 800m structure built by the Soviets to detect incoming missiles. There, we met "Tarzan" - one of the very tame wild dogs descended from domestic animals. Our tour guide told us a very interesting story about the site, which I'll do my best to recall...
Fairly grey weather, and the vastness of the radar made finding a creative shot quite tricky. One of my travel party found an interesting composition using a reflection in puddle on the roof of this military building - so I borrowed the idea with another puddle for this shot!
© Andrew Hocking 2019
The radar and it's location was kept secret from the world - including Russian civilians. The military site is accessed via a 6 mile long road through dense forest. The road was intentionally built with slight bends so that the base could not be seen from a distance.
More interesting still, is that old Soviet maps labelled the base as a children's summer camp! A bogus bus stop complete with an intricate mosaic children's illustration was even constructed at the beginning of the access road to support the ruse.
RECLAMATION PROJECT: " DUGA ROOF GARDEN"
A couple of trees starting to grow on the roof of a military building on the Duga radar site within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The crumbling rendered wall behind the trees reveals it's red brick construction.
© Andrew Hocking 2019
Incident #3: Beware of the dogs...
On day three, the aforementioned veges were keen to visit the "mostly" abandoned Yaniv Train Station. As was I to be fair!
But danger lurked between the rusty train relics... Forget the radiation, forget about slipping over and banging my head on a metal swing within an hour of entering the zone... Yaniv Station was where I encountered the scariest moment of the trip by far!...
RECLAMATION PROJECT: "RUST & REVIVAL"
A new shoot contrasting against a rusty tanker carriage at the abandoned Yaniv Train Station.
© Andrew Hocking 2019
As our group wandered the area, one of my travel buddies, Tom, said to me - "I wouldn't go further up there - There's some nasty dogs!"
Now I'm used to dogs - my dad has five boisterous collies who bound up to me when I visit! And after meeting "Tarzan" at Duga, "Sausage" outside our apartments in Chernobyl and the other friendly dogs outside the power station's canteen (where we were served lunch on three days), I was conditioned to believe that all dogs in the zone were like family pets - so I duly ignored Tom's advice and walked further up the tracks.
Very soon, a large dog came running towards me - snarling and curling it's lips to show powerful jaws full of teeth. I'm not going to lie, at this point I was scared! Not wanting to run and potentially trigger a chase instinct, I began walking away slowly while shushing the beast as if it was a family pet.
At the time I thought it might be protective of nearby young, but others in the group thought it could be a guard dog - possibly protecting the tonnes of scrap metal for it's owner.
RECLAMATION PROJECT: "LOST SIGNAL"
On reflection, this image is up there in my top three from the trip. Initially, I wasn't bothered about processing it as the light was pretty flat and uninspiring. I liked the subject enough though (an abandoned railway signal tower at Yaniv Station), to try a few quick edits... which turned into a hour or so editing! But I've ended up with an image I'm happy with. Shooting in RAW and holding a grad filter in front of the lens (as my filter holder didn't fit the borrowed camera) allowed me to retain some detail in the grey sky - brought out in Lightroom & Photoshop. To some extent, this image demonstrates how nature is reclaiming the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
© Andrew Hocking 2019
Up on the roof...
On the third (and last) day, our tour guide took us up to the roof of one of Pripyat's tallest apartment blocks. Only then, from on top of the sixteenth floor, could we really grasp the size of the city - and how much it has yielded to nature.
As we had previously walked around most at ground level, the overgrowth prevented us from seeing other buildings across open spaces - as residents of the city once could.
RECLAMATION PROJECT: "GHOST TOWN"
The ghost town of Pripyat becoming dwarfed by the trees growing between it's buildings.
© Andrew Hocking 2019
Chernobyl, until next time...
Chernobyl was amazing. I've come away with knowledge of modern history, experience of a new culture, and of course - a bunch of photos!
I believe that, 33 years after the explosion, my visit was at an ideal time in history (although I'd like to visit in autumn some time!). I was just about confident enough that the area is safe (with an expert guide and common sense) as there have been enough guinea pigs before me! I'm glad I visited before the zone becomes too popular - losing it's ambience. The hit HBO series airing now seems to have really spiked an interest in Chernobyl as a travel destination. And soon, it might become too unsafe as the buildings begin to crumble. Our guide estimated that could happen in as little as 10-15 years.
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