At 1.23 am on April 26, 1986, reactor 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine exploded after a sudden power surge in a systems test, causing a fire that burned for ten days. The radioactive fallout spread over tens of thousands of square kilometers, driving more than a quarter of a million people from their homes, permanently. Fifty thousand were from Pripyat, just three kilometers from the plant, a once bustling center that was home to workers and their families. Pripyat became a ghost town, almost overnight.
In 2011, as people around the world watched TV reports on the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, the Ukrainian government gave approval for travel inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone which has now become a disaster-tourism destination.
First stop: a small park with signs commemorating settlements evacuated in the Exclusion Zone. Then snapshots next to the sarcophagus encasing the reactor. “This is as close as you can get. Hurry up!” says the guide.
The amusement park in Pripyat is a regular attraction. It was being set up for May Day celebrations when the disaster occurred. Visitors are fascinated by the crumbling scenes of decay in Pripyat, and many assume that there have been no significant changes since the night everyone fled. What they may not realize is that Pripyat today is not as it was when abandoned. Scavengers have stolen valuables, and intruders have left their marks. Tourists and guides now assemble sinister tableaux to evoke the flight from disaster. Schoolbooks are left open at pages showing Marx and Lenin; a child’s chair is placed in front of a piano, but is too low for any child to reach the keyboard. The staged scene often found features a doll and a gas mask. Flaking ceilings have left a layer of dust, suggesting that the objects have been there much longer than they have. Visitors often add an extra touch, making compositions for close-up shots, for the countless cameras and smartphones.
Seeing the attraction of the gas masks in Middle School Number 3, tour organizers hooked up a few gas masks to hang from the ceiling for easier snapshots. One female guide has a contact lens with a radiation warning sign and wears a souvenir Chernobyl cap.
My photographs of dolls and gas masks are as I found them in the Exclusion Zone, in their new arrangement. Staged arrangements do not simplify our understanding of the chaos, but rather add a further level of confusion.
Outside interference and work by amateur photographers can lead professional photojournalists reporting on the Exclusion Zone to see these settings as authentic, and their photographs can then be published and unwittingly presented as true.