Photographer captures how the devastation of Chernobyl has aged over the years
The Chernobyl disaster, a catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred in 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, remains to this day the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history.
Taking place near the city of Pripyat, north of the Ukrainian SSR, the disaster was sparked by huge explosions that ripped the roof off of Chernobyl’s reactor number four after a number of catastrophic errors made by staff of the power plant.
The public interest of Chernobyl has spiked in recent months following the release of HBO’s popular yet controversial new mini-series which depicts the disaster of April 1986 and the unprecedented cleanup efforts that followed.
While tourism to the exclusion zone of Pripyat has become a source of major income for the Ukraine in recent years, photographer David McMillan was one of the very few people to explore the desolate area of Chernobyl at time when the radiation level was still a major source of fear.
Making his first trip the city of Pripyat in 1994, just eight years after the reactor at Chernobyl had exploded, McMillan was unsure of how restricted his movements would be upon arrival and expected to have difficulties manoeuvring the now abandoned terrain. However, not only free to roam the entirety of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, he managed to get within meters of the reactor itself.
“The challenge was finding people who could get me in,” photographer David McMillan explained in an interview with CNN. “I didn’t know where to go; I was at the mercy of drivers and my interpreter.”
He added: “I had no real sense of [the danger],” he continued. “People just advised me that some areas were heavily contaminated, and that I should maybe only take a minute or two to photograph there.”
Now, the city of Pripyat is entirely abandoned. A city which was build to house the workers of the power plant had grown to 50,000—all of which were told to leave behind their belongings and flee after the severity of the danger was unveiled.
Since his first visit to Chernobyl, McMillan, now ages 74, had made a total of 21 trips to the area. Of the thousands of photographs he took over the years, 200 of his favourites are to be published in his new book, Growth and Decay: Pripyat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
“People weren’t around, and when nature wasn’t being cut back and cultivated, it just grew wild and reclaimed itself,” the photographer added. “I guess it was heartening to see this kind of regrowth, and inevitable to see culture vanishing.”
“There has been a repopulation of animals, and someone even told me that the birding (bird watching) there is among the best in Europe.”
Following the explosion, tens of thousands of people were exposed to lethal amounts of radiation which resulted in countless deaths, a huge surge in serious illness such as cancer and other major health disorders. To this day, an exclusion zone surrounds the area of Chernobyl which is not expected to be habitable again for at least another 20,000 years.
Despite the danger, McMillan didn’t consider the threat to his health during his unprecedented documenting of an area which has now seen a repopulation of different times of wildlife. “As far as safety is concerned, I accepted that there was a risk of sorts, but I was advised where the most highly contaminated areas were and to spend less time there,” McMillan added in a separate interview with Buzzfeed. “As the threat of radiation has diminished, the proliferation of wild boars has been somewhat concerning, but the current hazard is the buildings that are collapsing.”
Knowing of the destruction that the radiation has caused to families in the aftermath of the explosion, McMillan admitted that he could not help the overwhelming emotion that came with visiting some areas of Chernobyl. “Going into some of the kindergartens, where there were so many remnants of the children — and knowing that the incidence of thyroid cancer has spiked because of the accident, triggered a different sort of [emotional response].
“But there’s probably an unavoidable — and I’m reluctant to say this — beauty (to the decay),” he added. “I’ve found that the walls have sort of ripened,” he added.
McMillan continued: “People weren’t around, and when nature wasn’t being cut back and cultivated, it just grew wild and reclaimed itself,” the photographer said. “I guess it was heartening to see this kind of regrowth, and inevitable to see culture vanishing.”