The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, home to the most dangerous object that man has ever created, is more than an abandoned city and a crumbling nuclear reactor. A new book by historian Darmon Richter reveals the closest you can get to an authentic depiction of a huge swathe of land and its history, giving readers a view of Chernobyl that has never been seen before and may never be seen again.
Richter’s book, Chernobyl: A Stalker’s Guide, offers a fascinating study of the region as it stands today based on countless visits to the Zone over a seven-year period. A long-time researcher of ideological architecture, Richter’s first experience of Chernobyl was as part of a guided tour that ticked off many of the best-known sites but left him with a sense that there was a lot more of this vast area that remained to be discovered. Since then, he has made regular trips, leading his own tours, and making his own less-than-legal expedition to explore parts that would remain otherwise inaccessible.
The vast and immersive research conducted by Richter culminates in a book that goes far beyond the sensationalist photos of gas masks, toy dolls, and the characteristic Ferris wheel, all of which have increasingly littered Instagram over the last few decades as tourism to the Zone has grown. With visitors constantly manipulating the landscape to create their own versions of the fallout from the disaster, the potential of the photograph to document the region has become increasingly unstable, something that Richter himself is highly aware of.
Whether there’s a real version of Chernobyl waiting to be unearthed, photographically or otherwise, is a question that Richter has pondered ever since his first visit, particularly in relation to how the Zone appeals to our desire to experience a hint of the apocalypse, and how a sensationalized rendering of Chernobyl is exaggerated to fill seats on the thousands of tour buses that pass through the secure perimeter each year. “I was disappointed with the overall experience,” says Richter, looking back on his first trip, “how fake and tacky it all felt, but I also felt bad for feeling that way. What right did I have to be disappointed with the presentation style of someone else’s tragedy?”
Richter’s regular trips to Ukraine led to an understanding of how little of the Zone is seen or experienced by visitors and over the years, he came to know people who worked and even lived in Chernobyl. At a time when there are concerns that too many tourists are descending upon the city of Pripyat, the “atomgrad” built specifically to house nuclear workers and their families, there are more than 1,000 square miles of farmland, factories, and abandoned villages that remain almost completely unvisited.
Rather than attempting to present one single, authoritative narrative of the Zone, Richter’s book draws together a number of vastly different experiences and perspectives within it. As well as the tourists on their organized tours visiting a shortlist of recognizable landmarks, there are engineers and scientists who commute each day to the decommissioned power plant, ignoring the museum of abandonment that lies outside of the facility’s gates. There are also former inhabitants who have returned to resettle their villages, and finally the Stalkers — hence the book’s title — who navigate their own unofficial explorations, avoiding detection by both the police and those conducting more serious criminal activity — the metal thieves, poachers, and worse.
These “overlapping realities” inform Richter’s research and the book depicts journeys with different groups. These culminate in a trip inside the New Safe Confinement — the largest moveable building ever built and designed to contain the crumbling reactor — a visit that may have been officially sanctioned but the processes that lead to it don’t exactly feel legitimate.
Richter’s photography is straight and far from sensational, with a sensitivity to how the Zone is constantly in flux. Many see Chernobyl as frozen but a number of the places photographed by Richter have already changed beyond recognition. Forest fires destroyed the remarkable painted wooden chalets of the Izumrudniy (Emerald) Holiday Camp, an area that was rarely photographed and now no longer exists. Elsewhere, buildings decay and occasionally collapse, shifting the geography as nature reasserts its dominance.
The trip inside the New Safe Confinement is another example. On April 24, 1986, Reactor Block 4 was devastated by a power surge causing a nuclear meltdown which released huge amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere. The initial attempt to contain the melting reactor was only ever a temporary measure and the massive structure of the New Safe Confinement was moved into place in 2016. The tale that Richter tells of gaining access to photograph the inside of the New Safe Confinement is perhaps reflective of Chernobyl as a whole: it’s never entirely clear who is in charge, whether permission was needed, granted, or required, never mind who would give it, and favors are required for certain things to happen. However it came about, Richter came away with a photograph of the interior of the New Safe Confinement which, given that work to dismantle the contaminated wreckage now contained within its 350-foot-high walls is about to start, might never be possible again.
For those willing to take certain risks and put themselves through a few days of hardship, unofficial tours of the Zone are not unusual, led by Stalkers who know the terrain and through their connections with the locals, keep hardy hikers stocked with water and food. Richter joined one of these trips, trekking for four days, sleeping rough, and dodging the police. Carrying camera gear meant compromises on clothing and water, and Richter chose his Canon 6D Mark II coupled with a 24-105mm f/4 lens. “Things can happen so fast there, whether it’s a posing fox, or a moose crossing a river in the distance. Having a lens with that kind of range has helped me not to miss those fleeting shots,” Richter tells me.
Richter packed a Canon Rebel as a spare and took a tripod and a 40mm prime. With no opportunities to charge, five spare batteries were in Richter’s bag, but it was storage that provided a more interesting challenge. “I took maybe three or four SD cards, which I often swapped in and out. If we got caught there was a high chance the police might confiscate our cameras, so I kept my best shots on SD cards hidden in my socks.”
The group trekked for 50 miles through heavily forested terrain, mostly at night, and Richter ended the journey filthy, hungry, dehydrated, with blistered feet and bruised shoulders. “But I got the shots I wanted, and that’s what it’s all about.”
The covert hike offered something unique: a shot of Pripyat’s Ferris wheel by night, an unusual sight given that the curfew makes visits after dark very rare. However, while the trek may have been one of the more thrilling parts of Richter’s research, the photos of which he’s proudest came through more conventional research. Having been isolated since 1986, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has not been “de-Sovietized” like the rest of Ukraine and remains full of relics from when the country was a part of the U.S.S.R. Monuments remain in the tiny abandoned villages throughout the Zone, and these are the images for which Richter had to work the hardest. “Some of them were incredibly hard to find, and while they’re not necessarily big or dramatic objects, the complete collection I managed to put together feels like a real achievement to me.”
Many of Richter’s shots will remain unpublished, documenting less-than-legal activities. “I changed a few names to protect people’s identities, and naturally I also avoided sharing identifiable photos of them. That goes not just for the stalker trip, but also the Chernobyl rave that I write about towards the end of the book.”
Other moments required further discretion. “There were various threads I didn’t really want to pull on too much,” Richter explains. The Zone is vast and while it has an official fenced perimeter, much of it is unpoliced. People cultivate drugs, loot irradiated metal, and poach endangered — and potentially contaminated — animals for their meat. “We saw a small group of people illegally digging in the Zone in the middle of the night,” he tells me, recounting further details of his hike. “I have no idea what they were looking for — or burying? — and we didn’t particularly want to go and ask.”
Richter knows that there’s more to be uncovered — enough to fill the career of an investigative journalist. “Ultimately it’s not what I was there to document,” he notes. “Rather, I wanted to give people a comprehensive overview of the Zone today — to show how much it has changed and evolved since the time of the disaster, but also how different it is, how much more varied and nuanced the Chernobyl region can be, compared to how it’s represented within the modern tourism bubble. And I think this book achieves that.”
Chernobyl: A Stalker’s Guide is 248 pages of research featuring more than 150 color photographs. It is available to purchase as a smartly bound hardback for $29.55.
All images courtesy of Darmon Richter and used with permission.