Yesterday, Japan upgraded its ranking of Fukushima Power Plant to the highest level of nuclear disaster – that of Chernobyl, a power plant in the Ukraine that exploded 25 years ago this month. In commemoration, our photo of the week is this haunting image out an abandoned highrise window near Chernobyl, in Pripyat, by Łucja Dorota Stomma. We talked with Łucja as part of our occasional HIGHRISE series which features the photographers behind the photos — and the windows.
Pripyat was a Soviet highrise community built to house the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s employees. The whole community was evacuated within 2 days of the initial explosion on April 26, 1986, and it’s now a ghost town, a stark symbol of central planning gone horrifyingly wrong. The empty city has been featured in at least 3 video games, and tour operators began bringing in tourists a few years ago. Our HIGHRISE “participate” photographer of the week, Łucja Dorota Stomma, went into Pripyat as a tourist herself, a few months ago and took these pictures. HIGHRISE project coordinator Paramita Nath asked her for the story behind the images over email last night:
“It was my first visit to Pripyat, first time in Ukraine. (I live in Warsaw, Poland, about 900 km to the west of Chernobyl). Pripyat was founded in 1970, was home to plant’s employees and their families, at the time it was a developing modern town – the main idea behind the urban layout was the so-called triangular principle and this triangular plan in Pripyat was a novelty which won many awards for Soviet architects. People led good and happy lives in the town (there was a continuous supply of good variety of food, different than in the rest of USSR). Thirty six hours after the explosion of the Czernobyl’s reactor 1,200 buses evacuated the entire population and this prosperous town was made empty. It’s worth noticing that the town, in fact, was nothing more than a 50-thousand people city with huge blocks of flats, quite a lot of open spaces, a symmetrical plan, horizon visible from many places. What really draws attention now is trees and bushes everywhere – nature takes over.”
“Of course, there are quite a lot of toys left and other belongings, e.g. little shoes (but mainly toys, books and notebooks) – it makes one feel really strange, uncomfortable. You keep thinking – what was this girl or boy like who left it? How was he feeling on the day of evacuation? Did he know he won’t get his bear or car back? And that he will never come back? Yes, children will never play there again. Sometimes looking at a notebook or a toy you can read the date, it’s explicitly there, you can really see that time stopped for Pripyat.”
“There are also many stories that you may get to know while being there (from the people in Czernobyl). For instance, it is said that after the explosion at the reactor, inhabitants gathered on so called railway bridge just outside the town to get better view of the reactor. Nobody thought about the possibility of danger, especially as officials were telling that radiation level was minimal and there was no problem. What they saw was a beautiful rainbow coming from burning graphite nuclear core. The view was beautiful but fatal to them – they all must have died – they were exposed to so many roentgens (a fatal dose).”
“I was six years old when the accident in Chernobyl took place – I don’t remember any details about the situation at the time. I think after 1989 in Poland (the first free democratic elections since Second World War) nobody tried to make it a secret so I just grew up hearing, from time to time, something about Chernobyl. In other words, I feel I’ve always been aware of the facts.”
“Now, I work for an international bank, I am an analyst, in my job I need to combine knowledge from the fields of statistics, econometrics, programming, and finance. It’s not a repetitive job generally and brings satisfaction, particularly if it leaves me time for my hobbies – photography, among others. I am an amateur photographer. I must say that only recently I started thinking about photography more seriously and deeply. I’ve read quite a lot of classics: Susan Sontag, John Berger, Roland Barthes, and some Polish authors, as well. I think I’m getting closer to understanding what’s a good photo, where its value lies, what it makes me feel like…”
“When looking out this window, you see emptiness of this ghost town, the horizon and nothing out there, and a lot of green – nature taking over, from the roof of a block of flats out there the bushes and trees. It looks more like a forest with some strange buildings in the middle of it. I think that in 10 years time, no people will be allowed in this vanishing town (because of the collapsing buildings) and after some time, only our memories and photographs will remain.