Chernobyl as a site of dark tourism
Andy Day is an urbanist and photographer whose work specialises in physical interventions and exploration. He recently presented a paper on his photography at a conference in Ukraine about the urban geography of post-Communist states. During his week-long trip he was given the opportunity to visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and was excited at the opportunity, not just to experience this infamous location, but also to get an understanding of how it functions as a site of dark tourism.
Waiting patiently for our passports to be checked, I cringed at the array of glow-in-the-dark mugs, glow-in-the-dark fridge magnets and glow-in-the-dark 'Radioactive Wolf of Chernobyl' t-shirts for sale. This didn't stop me from buying coffee at the bright yellow trailer emblazoned with radioactive signs that stands alongside the checkpoint guarding entry to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
My despair suddenly deepened. "Oh my god, I have to get one of these," said the geography professor who had sat next to me on the bus from Kiev, staring eagerly at one of the mugs. "For my sister," he added. "She won't believe it."
I'm sure many of those buying this incredible array of tat were also buying them ironically, but buying them they were and the queue was impressive. If a nuclear disaster can't resist the processes of late capitalism, then nothing can.
Tours of the Exclusion Zone have been in operation for more than 15 years. 40,000 visitors will explore the site this year, with an even greater number expected to visit in 2018. As an example of dark tourism, a trip to Chernobyl is very much a part of the experience economy and its four E's - education, escapism, esthetics and entertainment - that give participants the opportunity to craft an identity through a sense of authenticity.
Part ruin, part disaster, Chernobyl has been fetishised and romanticised through media representation, from the wealth of urban exploration photography to its portrayal in films and various video games. This "commodification of anxiety and doubt"* makes it easy to be as sniffy about this tourist industry as I was about the glow-in-the-dark merchandise: this is commercialised rubbernecking, an opportunity to buy into the mystique of urban exploration, a chance to feel the 'edginess' of absolute decay, of near-apocalypse, while still being able to get into a warm, comfortable bus and be taken safely back home again afterwards, with a wealth of photos to edit, some stories to tell, and not having to worry that Pripyat won't be habitable again for another 20,000 years. It's not just Chernobyl that is being sold; it is the urban exploration experience itself, packaged into a day trip complete with catering and a tour guide.
This becomes more complex when it emerges that the evidential validity of what visitors encounter is suspect. As historian and Chernobyl-expert Darmon Richter notes, while the photographs continue to proliferate, it has become impossible to know what's real and what isn't. Pripyat, the town of 50,000 residents evacuated shortly after the meltdown in 1986, is in a "carefully managed state of decline" with the imagery perpetuating a "popular myth which paints Pripyat as some kind of profound time capsule." It's only after a visit that you realise that the number of unnerving toy dolls missing an eye or a limb strewn around this site seems somewhat unlikely; there are only so many toys that the child of a Soviet family can drop when told to evacuate its home.
All of this makes me sound jaded about my experience, and that somehow any photograph of Chernobyl is not a slice of history but a photograph of its commodification. My day out was fascinating. My tour guide was excellent, and the history and incredible details of what happened here are profound.
Like thousands of people before me, I walked the streets of Pripyat and was suddenly propelled into Call of Duty, taking the same photographs of the same sites and finding it compelling.
Our fascination with the modern ruin is revealing: we harbour a secret desire for our own apocalypse. Chernobyl, though divorced from my Western culture by the iron curtain, is a reminder of modernity's susceptibility to being destroyed by man's supposed ingenuity. Our existence is suddenly made to seem fragile, and the ease with which it could be undermined is strangely refreshing, ripping us momentarily out of our safe, cotton wool existences. Secretly we want disaster as justification for our own underlying belief that modernity is fundamentally flawed; that we are lost within a regime that suppresses our identity through an incessant tickling of our desires and rendering us automatons of late capitalism. Quietly we crave a future where man's capacity for self-sabotage undermines this regime, bringing both liberation and destruction, finally providing that conclusive, fundamentally authentic and terminal experience that creates the ultimate story and, fatally, allows us to know truly who we are. With apocalypse comes meaning.
Or perhaps the glow-in-the-dark tat keeps those ominous thoughts at bay; we can indulge, scare ourselves briefly, and keep them contained, held at a safe distance by fetishistic photographs and trivial knickknacks.
I can't recommend a trip to Chernobyl enough; however touristic it has become, it is a fascinating, thought-provoking experience that acts as a warning of our capacity for ruining this planet. But go there with the knowledge that you are being sold a sanitised version of urban exploration, and what your camera captures is a commodified version of a reality that has long disappeared beneath a sea of images.
* Dark Tourism: the Attraction of Death and Disaster, Lennon and Foley, 2000. Page 12
Andy Day regularly writes for www.buildering.net and his blog on www.andyday.com. In December 2017 Day's photographic work will be included in a group exhibition at the Croatian Embassy, London organised by the British Croatian Society.
Edgework has several signed, limited edition photographs by Andy Day available in our online shop.