James Kerwin Photographic
 Architecture & Travel Photography

Photography Adventure Blog

Photography doesn’t always go according to plan and of course images aren’t always perfect. This is my honest and open behind the scenes look into what I do as an architecture, adventure and travel photographer.

 

Photographing the Abandoned City of Pripyat, Ukraine

 

This is my fourth installment of my blog posts relating to the Lost Towns of the world. A series that I started shooting earlier this year and that has so far included Kolmanskop and Elizabeth Bay in Namibia, Karakoy & Ani in Turkey and now I have decided to look at a trip from the past, Pripyat in Ukraine. I have entitled the series “inhabited”.

A view over Pripyat, Ukraine.

A view over Pripyat, Ukraine.

THE FALLOUT

It was on the 26th of april 1986 the biggest nuclear disaster in human history took place. After an experimental shutdown, reactor #4. of The Chernobyl nuclear power station went into a meltdown. A big explosion blew of the lid of the nuclear reactor, and what followed was not only a big fire but also the spread of highly contaminated smoke and extremely radiated dust into the air. An area of 30 square km was evacuated after several days as the then Soviet Government tried to conceal the worst of what had happen. But reality was due to kick in, and days later the residents of Pripyat were evacuated. These people would never return.

Both 29 & 31 years after these events I had the chance to visit the Chernobyl region, the military area called Duga and the abandoned town of Pripyat.

At this point I will point out that this is simply a guide, from a photographers point of view. I know the site is a place of sadness and hurt - this is not something that I have forgotten about, I am simply looking at the town from a photography point of view.

MY TAKE

However, a lot of people have written about the disaster, and with shows like HBO’s showing what happened and doing a superb job of it, why would I try and compete? There is no need.

However, what I would like to do is talk about visiting there, what is left to photograph and more importantly how to visit the exclusion zone.

Things are due to change in the zone, especially now that the Ukraine has announced that the area is due to become an official tourist attraction.

SO WHAT IS LEFT TO PHOTOGRAPH?

With the new pathways and clean up job that is taking place ready for the new influx of tourism, this is difficult to say. But if you follow my guide through you will see my two recommendations for taking internal shots and visiting parts “off limits” to the usual tourists.

Hospital 126

This is the site of those jackets, the ones that belonged to the fireman that bravely fought to save the plant and subsequently the region. The hospital remains one of the photography highlights, it stretches over three floors and it’s location can be seen on over on my Google map.

On each floor there are still subjects of interest, from the waiting rooms and foyer to the patient records, documents and possessions of staff members. What ever you are into photographing, this building should be first on your “must do” list.

Situated on the second floor - this waiting area was a lovely composition. Image shot: 2015.

Situated on the second floor - this waiting area was a lovely composition. Image shot: 2015.

In the children’s wing - these cots were left very untouched. Image shot: 2017.

In the children’s wing - these cots were left very untouched. Image shot: 2017.

A famous photograph, in a difficult to find room of hospital 126. Can you find it? Image: 2015.

A famous photograph, in a difficult to find room of hospital 126. Can you find it? Image: 2015.

The hospital foyer, a piece of cloth here registers high on the geiger counter. Shot 2015.

The hospital foyer, a piece of cloth here registers high on the geiger counter. Shot 2015.

Many people don’t realise that this piano is actually situated in hospital 126. Image shot 2015.

Many people don’t realise that this piano is actually situated in hospital 126. Image shot 2015.

One of the upstairs waiting areas, with light pouring in. Image shot 2017.

One of the upstairs waiting areas, with light pouring in. Image shot 2017.

The Schools and Kindergartens

Schools, kinder-gardens and playgrounds are dotted all over the city. Once a city for young families and the wealthy (with children), this explains the need for so many schooling options.

However, not all of them are in a great state and certainly are tough to shoot or “made to look nice” in camera. However High School number 3 is the location where I took my favorite image of Pripyat in the two visits. Which is ironic as gas masks were not actually used during the clear out operation and would have had no effect even if they had been. I have pin pointed a few spots on my map of Chernobyl.

A moody edit of gas masks on the floor of high school number 3. Image shot 2015. My top image from 2 visits to the town.

A moody edit of gas masks on the floor of high school number 3. Image shot 2015. My top image from 2 visits to the town.

Tables and chairs stacked inside a former classroom. Image: 2015.

Tables and chairs stacked inside a former classroom. Image: 2015.

Kindergarden shot in 2015.

Kindergarden shot in 2015.

The gymnasium of a high school. Image shot 2015.

The gymnasium of a high school. Image shot 2015.

Classroom in a former school. Shot 2017.

Classroom in a former school. Shot 2017.

Hotel Polissya

Now a popular spot (as it is close to the amusement park), however I believe it is one of the best photographs to be had of the town. Look out from the former Hotel Polissya, either on the rooftop or through the window a floor down (depending on the time you have available).

Shooting from the top of the hotel at f/8 you get a wonderful sweeping roof and leading line to the former Palace of Culture on the right of the photo and it shows the desolate town square on the left.

The Palace of Culture in the Spring of 2015 - shot from the roof of Hotel Polissya. Shot 2015.

The Palace of Culture in the Spring of 2015 - shot from the roof of Hotel Polissya. Shot 2015.

But just the floor below also provides a brilliant perspective, looking out towards the wrecked and ruined city. This image was shot at f/8, iso 100 and I placed my tripod at mid-height. The clouds in this image provide drama, unlike the ones I took in 2017 from the same position.

The city through a window looking out of Hotel Polissya. 2015.

The city through a window looking out of Hotel Polissya. 2015.

The Palace of Culture

Inside the Palace of Culture are a few of the best shot examples left in the city. Receiving less footfall over the years due to the ban of one day tours from entering the building the state of disrepair is not as bad as other buildings of importance.

I also returned in 2017 to capture an image in the same spot as I had 2 years prior. It lead to an interesting result. More trees, more growth and a global warming problem maybe? It turned out the next two images were taken 2 days apart, in April 2015 and then in April 2017. What a difference…

April 2015 - No trees, it is warm outside but the green has not yet appeared.

April 2015 - No trees, it is warm outside but the green has not yet appeared.

April 2017 - looking out, the scene is vastly different. Global warming perhaps? Or just an early Summer?

April 2017 - looking out, the scene is vastly different. Global warming perhaps? Or just an early Summer?

The gymnasium inside the Palace of Culture. Taken 2015. The two images above were taken at the end of this room looking out towards the amusement park.

The gymnasium inside the Palace of Culture. Taken 2015. The two images above were taken at the end of this room looking out towards the amusement park.

The Swimming pool:

As the swimming pool actually closed a lot later the decay here is not as deep, although don’t let that fool you - it is still very much looking in a sad state.

The pool for me is worth visiting, but I am not a fan of derelict pools in general they don’t exactly lead to stunning images or print sales albeit they are sometimes nice to visit, like this one.

The swimming pool was not actually abandoned until a later date, but it is in a state now .Image taken 2015.

The swimming pool was not actually abandoned until a later date, but it is in a state now .Image taken 2015.

A wide shot of the swimming pool in 2017.

A wide shot of the swimming pool in 2017.

The infamous amusement park

It was due to be opened for the first time on 1 May 1986, in time for the May Day celebrations, but these plans were cancelled on 26 April, when the Chernobyl disaster occurred just a few kilometers away. However, several sources report that the park was opened for a short time on 27 April before the announcement to evacuate the city was made.

Photography here is actually really difficult and I prefer the shots where the vantage point from which the image is shot is higher. Say on a rooftop opposite for example, or as previously showed, through the windows at The Palace of Culture. The ferries wheel is tall and looking up at it does not (in my opinion) lead to pleasing results. My tip here would be to shoot it from further away or gain some height - I have pinned a building behind with a nice view over on my map.

The iconic shot of the Ferris Wheel - 2015.

The iconic shot of the Ferris Wheel - 2015.

Shot from a rooftop opposite in 2015.

Shot from a rooftop opposite in 2015.

From the ground as well, 2015.

From the ground as well, 2015.

Get in the air and the magic happens (well, apart from that sky!). Image 2017.

Get in the air and the magic happens (well, apart from that sky!). Image 2017.

A bumper car front in 2017.

A bumper car front in 2017.

A wide shot of the bumper cars in 2015.

A wide shot of the bumper cars in 2015.

Music School:

This building has been going downhill fast, but I feel it still has a few little parts that are worth photographing, especially if you are a lover of pianos! On the stage sits the first, and considering all it has been through it is in a good condition. Although, I think it is tricky to shoot. I opted for an angled shot (which is somewhat of a classic) and then in 2017 I went back and shot it from behind, a composition I prefer and is much less seen online. Lines are the issue - so make sure to adjust your tripod lower to get the lines of the piano right on your LCD, whilst composing in live view (see images 1 and 2).

Upstairs there was another piano but in recent years it has deteriorated beyond it really being worth a photo. However, I have included them both to let you decide (images 3 & 4 below).

I did actually try a composite back in 2017 as well, but unfortunately it was not as well received as I thought it may be. Check image 5 below - would love to know your thoughts. I used what remained of the piano in image four and shot it downwards, but then placed it onto a nicer looking floor. Maybe the wrong colour choice!

IMAGE 1 - A piano sits on the now defunct stage in the music school - image 2015. An angled composition.

IMAGE 1 - A piano sits on the now defunct stage in the music school - image 2015. An angled composition.

IMAGE 2 - I tried a different viewpoint in 2017. This was shot using a 17mm T/S lens - although you can just use a nice wide angled lens to capture the same result. just make sure to correct the edges in post!

IMAGE 2 - I tried a different viewpoint in 2017. This was shot using a 17mm T/S lens - although you can just use a nice wide angled lens to capture the same result. just make sure to correct the edges in post!

IMAGE 3 - This piano now unfortunately is wrecked, I shot it in the upstairs of the music school in 2015.

IMAGE 3 - This piano now unfortunately is wrecked, I shot it in the upstairs of the music school in 2015.

IMAGE 4 - It looks more like this since 2017.

IMAGE 4 - It looks more like this since 2017.

IMAGE 5 - My composite of the same piano with a nice new floor. 2017.

IMAGE 5 - My composite of the same piano with a nice new floor. 2017.

Soviet Mosaics & Signs:

Situated all over the city there are signs and mosaics, if you are a lover of all things soviet popping in front of your camera lens - then maybe a visit to the city is for you.

The post office is just one example of soviet signs and symbols around the city. Image 2015.

The post office is just one example of soviet signs and symbols around the city. Image 2015.

Duga:

In the woods about 10 kilometres south of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant there was a top-secret area, Chernobyl-2, also called Duga. It was one of the three Soviet Unions ‘over the horizon’ early detection systems to detect threats against attacks of ballistic rockets (because that turns up weekly right?!).

Duga though, has some of the best images in the zone in my opinion. These are some of the finest shots here.

Popular belief is that this part of the zone closed a lot later than that of other areas of the zone but the reality is that is closed just a year later in 1987, basically the year the zone was introduced.

Shooting here was straight forward. I looked for a couple of detail shots as well as a couple of wider shots. But I gathered more here than anywhere else in the zone, so these are my finer examples:

The gates to Duga - shot in 2017.

The gates to Duga - shot in 2017.

School entrance sits this horse. 2017.

School entrance sits this horse. 2017.

I photographed this gym on both visits, my 2017 effort was vastly better (shown here).

I photographed this gym on both visits, my 2017 effort was vastly better (shown here).

The control room and building has some of the best photographs in Chernobyl. Shot 2015.

The control room and building has some of the best photographs in Chernobyl. Shot 2015.

The Rooftops:

This remains as one of my favorite things to do whilst in the city, finding a rooftop to yourself and heading up to shoot from it. Or as I have done in the past, just chill, shoot and watch the sunset with a beer in hand.

Sunset here is usually difficult as most tour operators want you to go before you get the chance to shoot during these hours. However my guide (see information at the bottom of the blog) allowed us to extend our stay in April 2017 for just enough time to shoot golden hour - although not sunset.

In 2015 Gareth shot this image of me, whilst I shot an image - confusing much.

In 2015 Gareth shot this image of me, whilst I shot an image - confusing much.

And in 2017, I climbed on to the roof of the Hotel Polissya with Jade. We captured this Lara Croft themed shot - complete with BB guns purchased in the Ukraine days prior.

And in 2017, I climbed on to the roof of the Hotel Polissya with Jade. We captured this Lara Croft themed shot - complete with BB guns purchased in the Ukraine days prior.

 British Fine Art Architecture & Location Photographer

WHAT IS IT LIKE TO VISIT CHERNOBYL?

Tourism is a new industry for this region but now it has arrived it is only a matter of time before access to the “off-limit” parts is restricted. Being only two hours away from Kiev, originally Chernobyl was absent from guidebooks until 2011 and it was only in around 2013 that the Ukrainian government decided to begin to allow official tours and to cash in on a combination of the urban exploration photography trend and the return to “normal levels” of radiation across much of the area. Going inside the buildings was never seen as something that was “allowed” it was simply that some guides allowed you to do this, usually as they were taking more risk and subsequently charging more to allow you to do this.

I have mentioned this to many friends and family members since my visits to the zone, but an average single-day visit to the exclusion zone equals a radiation dose equivalent to one hour on an airplane, which is around 160 times less than the dose from one chest X-ray. However, if you are still not convinced then you can rent a personal dosimeter to keep track of of how much radiation you're exposed to during the visit - but it won’t be a lot at all!

Walking around the town in 2015 was an experience like no other, it was surreal. Seeing a place that I had only seen on videos at school or in the “Call of Duty” video game in the flesh, it was magic and over-whelming. I remember being scared on route to the zone for the first time, what if the low readings were false? What would it actually be like? Was it right to visit a place of such tragedy? Looking out of the bus window as we pulled in through the gates of the zone was a picture I will never forget - trees taller than the apartment blocks, the overgrown pathways no longer visible it looked like a place straight out of the movies, not a real place or the site of so much disaster and misery.

My experience was superb though, our guide knew his stuff and allowed us to go in and out of buildings as long as we returned at the time we were set prior. I feel like 2015 was the prime time to visit - and the radiation exposure turned out to be so low. I actually measured a higher reading in my kitchen in Norwich (UK), before I left than I ever witnessed in the zone that first visit.

2017 and things had deteriorated some more and I felt it was a lot harder to pick out photos. However, I have since put that down to personal experience, I had become a better photographer of course in the 2 year gap and had found a style of images that I liked (at that time) and I had shot most of these images in 2015 (I believed). That was my personal problem and in hindsight (and looking back from 2019) my images were better in 2017.

If you are looking for unique images it was unlikely you would find these in 2015 never mind 2017 and now, with the start of tourism proper - this will become non existent. But visiting Pripyat is about much more than that, it is about your photography journey, your experiences and witnessing a site that teaches us to “do things better” in the future, especially when it comes to nuclear power.

However, since my journey to Georgia (more to come from this region), I have learnt of a similar power station in Armenia - it is the same design and it is currently 15 years past its shelve life. Fingers crossed hey?!

HOW TO VISIT PRIPYAT

My first recommendation comes through two friends, Dan and Lee. Both those guys used a firm called Chernobylwel.com - both lads talk well of the tour provider and their experiences. However, I did not use them - I actually went direct to a guide on the ground and I am unsure just how busy these guys are in 2019 with the influx of visitors since HBO’s series - but their website is updated and impressive.

Lee (the guy I mentioned above, actually has a website with extensive links and pictures on nearly every single spot in the exclusion zone. You can check that out here.

My guide was Mykhailo Teslenko and you can find him on Facebook, on the link provided. Misha, as he likes to be known is a gent and a top guide with some serious knowledge on the zone and the town. He also is a guide that allows access to places you wish to provide links or pictures to and he has an extensive knowledge of the places around in the zone and beyond, he has insurance and links to all the best hotels and places to eat. But most importantly, he understand what you are there to do - take photographs!

Thank you for reading as usual.

Speak soon, James.

I shot these images with the following gear: (please be aware that these are affiliate links , by using them, if you purchase equipment or goods it costs you nothing more but I do receive a little kick back which supports me and my work).

My New Camera Rucksack

My Tripod Choice

Geared Tripod Head

My Canon 5DSR

VLOG camera of choice

Make the M50 FULL FRAME

VLOG Microphone

My best friend

Two Lenses used for these images:

Wide Angle

24-70mm Mid Range

And my NEW gimbal:

FeiyuTech AK2000