Is Every Photograph From Chernobyl a Lie?

Is Every Photograph From Chernobyl a Lie?

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."

One of the abandoned villages on the outskirts of the Exclusion Zone.

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.

The sign as you enter the town of Chernobyl, a popular stop-off for busloads of tourists.

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.

Andy Day's picture

Andy Day is a British photographer and writer living in France. He began photographing parkour in 2003 and has been doing weird things in the city and elsewhere ever since. He's addicted to climbing and owns a fairly useless dog. He has an MA in Sociology & Photography which often makes him ponder what all of this really means.

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how are the pics a lie ? yes it might be a tourist stop now but it still happened. disney like ? ya, no...... it's a dark piece of history. i'm sure they do add props to get better pics and make more of an impact but thats what every tourist destination does. i would still like to visit.

Because it's a curated experience, it's not "urbexing/abandoned properties" anymore -- it's staged, it's controlled.

Sure it's still cool to see but it's no longer authentic per se.

Exactly. When questioning if the photos are a lie you need to view it from the perspective of urban exploration or urban spelunking. Many times it is people sneaking (trespassing) on to a property that has long been abandoned and photographing what they see there. I'm sure plenty of people move things around that have been left behind for better photos at other abandoned sites too. The difference is that people aren't being bused in to those places and you won't have a tour guide. It does seem to lead to questions on just how many of these items that you find walking around Chernobyl have been left behind by the residents or placed there by tour companies. Who knows, maybe none of the items have been staged by the guides. You would have to look back at much older photos by urban explorers and compare. I remember seeing a lot of similar photos back then that people still take.
The other "lie" is that the people take the photos of an abandoned place while just of frame are the other 30 people from the tour bus. The photos that are taken, while capture the essence of the ruins, are taken by someone on a tour. The lie is to the urban exploration community or people viewing urban exploration photos that you were able to gain access to an abandoned site. Reminds me of college in Indiana. There was an abandoned building on campus that students would sneak in to and we did just that with our video camera. A few months later, the first floor was open during homecoming to show it's current state so people could see what it currently looked like before the renovations started. My photos from that would be more of a lie because I had open access to the building.

The photographs themselves may not be outright lies, but depending on what is claimed of such photographs, a question of truth is raised. Once scenes become manipulated by the presence of outside objects (dolls, gas masks, etc.) then we're looking more at photographs from an open-air museum than an authentic glimpse at a town abandoned following a man-made tragedy. Those are not lies, if they are presented as what they are. I may be going out on a limb to say what most photographs of this site are presented as but I would hazard a guess that few people photographing along with Andy went to very much trouble to question the authenticity of the pictures they came away with when posting them to social media or sharing with friends and family.

In other news, we have a new place for a historically insensitive selfie. "Show's over, folks, nothing to see here. Show's OH MY GOD! A horrible plane crash! Hey, everybody, get a load of this flaming wreckage!"

Shots from Bodie always have that "museum" feel also.

My wife's family is associated with Bodie. Her grandmother lived in the Dolan house. The furniture inside the houses is definitely staged. But interestingly, the school house is as it was in the 1940s, with the original desks, etc.

... kiling thousands??? Get your facts straight.

This from a World Health Organization article from 2005 (20 years after the accident):

"As of mid-2005, however, fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all being highly exposed rescue workers, many who died within months of the accident but others who died as late as 2004."

Preach it brother, once I read that number I had difficulty caring about what else he had to say.

Thats a very good point, Wikipedia has the number at 46. Much less...

"killing a few dozen people" just doesn't sound as dramatic though. Need the extra 'oomph' rather than the truth... ;-)

Chernobyl is responsible for more than that. The accident itself on site have a very little number, but the cancer rate of the cloud is way higher!

"Two decades ago, John Gittus of the Royal Academy of Engineering told the UK government there could eventually be around 10,000 fatalities. Today, some – notably environmental groups – put the death toll well into six figures."

Another half quoted truth.

Here is the next paragraph to your article...

But that’s the extreme end of the estimates. “The only deaths that have been firmly established, either individually or statistically, are the 28 victims of acute radiation syndrome and 15 cases of fatal child thyroid cancer,” says Wade Allison of the University of Oxford.

I have quoted this article, but many more shows that the Chernobyl disaster can't be only accounted for these few 50 victims.
Any doctors under the path of the cloud the following day can tell you that they saw a clear increase on thyroid cancer on their patient list.
10,000 seems high to me too, but it's clear THOUSANDS as specified on this article.
Not all these cancer can be clearly defined as "Chernobyl caused" that's why it's hard to give a clear count.
You can give a try to google if you don't trust doctors, and type "Chernobyl cancer death"

And maybe that will help you understand the reality of nuclear disaster.

And if we’re citing WHO:

“The total number of deaths already attributable to Chernobyl or expected in the future over the lifetime of emergency workers and local residents in the most contaminated areas is estimated to be about 4000. This includes some 50 emergency workers who died of acute radiation syndrome and nine children who died of thyroid cancer, and an estimated total of 3940 deaths from radiation-induced cancer and leukemia among the 200 000 emergency workers from 1986-1987, 116 000 evacuees and 270 000 residents of the most contaminated areas (total about 600 000). These three major cohorts were subjected to higher doses of radiation amongst all the people exposed to Chernobyl radiation.”


Get your “get your facts straight” straight.

And from the next paragraph (that you didn't quote)...

As about quarter of them will eventually die from spontaneous cancer not caused by Chernobyl radiation, the radiation-induced increase of about 3% will be difficult to observe.

A 3% increase over just living life.

Don't get me wrong, Chernobyl was a tragedy. That's a fact. Sensationalizing it erodes your credibility.

I don’t really understand your argument. Are you saying that thousands of people *haven’t* died as a result of the disaster? As the New Scientist article states, the general consensus is that they have. What are you trying to prove here?

Your missing the best part. The New Scientist article links back to a 1991 Daily Telegraph article. And i quote

"The second is the long-term threat of cancer that, for instance, caused 700 additional cancers over 45 years in 110,000 Japanese survivors of atomic bomb blasts (they received significantly more radiation than those around Chernobyl)"

The science on all of this is fairly murky. There is no agreed upon number that guarantee's cancer. Scientists in general agree 500-600 REM is the amount of radiation that will kill 50% of those exposed. To claim thousands have been killed and will be killed is an exaggeration. With the technology of the time of the accident, general contamination from 20 years of weapons testing, and terrible records keeping of the USSR it will be very difficult, if not impossible to accurately asses the full health impact of that accident.

My final comment as this argument feels a little absurd.

From the New Scientist, which I used as my source when writing the article: "The mainstream view puts the toll in five figures."

I'm sorry that in this article (notably, about photography, not about history or statistics) that I cited the mainstream view. In fact, I was conservative given that I said "thousands" rather than "five figures". I'm not sure how this qualifies as "sensationalising" but if that's your view, then please forgive me. It was not my intention and I'm confused as to how you could see it as such. I agree that the figures are murky and I'm sorry that my article (notably, about photography, not statistics) didn't explore it in depth.

That's very misleading. Sure, the *official* number of people died might be 50, but no one and no organization truly knows how many people died simply because Russia didn't acknowledged deaths caused by radiation to Chernobyl back then, nor did it attribute any cancers or birth defects in order to cover up for it. It took them a long time after the accident happened to even admit anything is wrong, and the only reason they did confess is because European countries started registering massive radiation spikes from fallout carried by the wind. So, yeah, "50" people officially died, we don't know how many were actually killed by the radiation.

There is a difference between acute symptoms occuring on the spot and easily trackable, causing a death obviously related to the explosion, and hidden radioactivity slowly increasing cancer rates in the decades after.

The day of the explosion, the wind was blowing to the West and the cloud of radioactive particles spread all over Western Europe, poisoning soils, waters, and food (mushrooms, for example, are known to retain radioctivity for years).

Such a poisoning takes years to be absorbed, so Europeans drunk radioactive water and ate radioactive food for years.

Now, dropping figures seems unaccurate since it's difficult to correlate this and that, but it's not silly to imagine that the consequences were massive.

It's like a radioactive colonial Williamsburg. Not real today but at one time it was.

Well yes, simply doing a day trip to the exclusion zone will pretty much guarantee you to hit all of the most visited spots, naturally. It's a huge area (just Pripyat itself could be explored for days / weeks). I can highly recommend a longer visit, you'll have the chance to get much further off the beaten track and experience a far less "fake" version of the area.

Thanks Greg. I've a longer trip planned for the summer and I'm really looking forward to going back. I can't wait to get away from the more touristic spots and visit some of the rarely-seen areas.

Ah great stuff - you won't regret it one bit, there's so much to see. Enjoy the trip!