Pripyat, once a town of 40,000 people and now a short distance from the world's single most deadly object, stands inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. As I waited to get a coffee at the tiny shop alongside the Zone's checkpoint, I cringed slightly at the array of glow-in-the-dark knickknacks on sale. Chernobyl, the site of the biggest nuclear disaster in history and now a slightly Disney-fied tourist destination, is a reminder that photography's "truth" is always a little suspect.
"I have to get one of these!" said the guy next to me, staring excitedly at the glow-in-the-dark fridge magnet featuring a radioactive symbol. "For my mom," he added, perhaps sensing my disgust. "She won't believe it."
However ironically tourists might be buying these novelty souvenirs, it's clear that one of mankind's gravest technological disasters, killing thousands of people and affecting hundreds of thousands more, can't escape commercialization. One of Ukraine's biggest tourist attractions, 70 percent of the revenue goes to the government and 50,000 people will have visited it in 2017 alone.
Tours to Chernobyl have been in operation for around 15 years, offering a fascinating insight into a dark chapter of our collective history, as well as endless photo opportunities. The marketing deployed by some of the tour companies may play heavily on the danger element but as long as you don't ignore the tour guides, visits to the exclusion zone are quite safe.
Dark Tourism's Profound Time Capsule
Dark tourism — tourism that centers around death and tragedy — provides all "four E's" of the experience economy: education, escapism, esthetics, and entertainment. Chernobyl ticks all of these boxes, offering a sanitized and, in a way, accessible version of the urban exploration that has become incredibly popular in recent years. In Pripyat, one of the towns and villages evacuated in 1986 a few days after the meltdown, ruin porn opportunities abound. But like any tourist attraction, the potential to create something new photographically is pretty much impossible.
More interesting is the questionable "truth" of any photographs emerging from the exclusion zone. According to Balkan Historian Darmon Richter, everything might not be as it seems. Much of the site, he suggests, is in a "carefully managed state of decline" whereby the imagery perpetuates "a popular myth which paints Pripyat as some kind of profound time capsule."
Certainly, the number of toy dolls scattered around seems a little odd, and the chances of anything having remained where it was dropped on the day of evacuation is very slim. Visitors do not walk through an abandoned town; they walk through an abandoned town that is maintained as a theme park, a palimpsest of every visitor's fetishistic interactions.
As Richter notes, the perfectly positioned television sets, the unfeasible number of gas masks, and countless propaganda posters all seem like improbably perfect photo opportunities. And, understandably, tourists go out of their way to exclude other tourists from their photographs — unless they're posing for selfies, of course.
A Question of Truth
The implications are a little strange but they give an insight into contemporary visual culture. The sheer volume and popularity of imagery emerging from Pripyat has created its own version of the town, almost separating it from the reality — one of the symptoms of our fascination with abandonment.
It's easy to get sniffy about this loss of authenticity, as if we could somehow remove the tourists and experience Pripyat untouched by other people. What emerges is no less authentic than anything else; there's no "real" Pripyat waiting to be discovered beneath this sea of images.
Sanitized Urban Exploration
None of this is a reason not to visit. My day trip was an incredible experience and our tour guide did a fantastic job. Inevitably I didn't take as many photographs as I would have done had I been the first to explore, or if I had been there without a guide, but as a packaged, sanitized, supervised, commodified urban exploration, it is highly recommended.
Lead image: Exploring one of the abandoned villages on the outskirts of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.