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Capturing Disaster

Words:

Edd Norval

Photos:

David McMillan
June 16, 2019

HBO's Chernobyl has captivated audiences all around the world for its intimate depiction of nuclear disaster. The gritty tale of lies, hubris and abuse of power in Soviet-era Russia makes for uncomfortable viewing. The charred remains of the city have always been a source of interest though, and the show's ability to portray the lives of people there has created a resurgence of interest in the site.

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It's now safe enough to go there, in certain parts, with the correct equipment. People have been doing so for years to see a place that looks as if life has been put on pause, with the day-to-day occasions of simple homely tasks being left incomplete in many of the apartments due to the mass evacuation.


Many photographers have gone there to document it and to try and understand the human implications and damaging effects of power-hungry and corrupt institutions. For aesthetic and artistic purposes, the city isn't the damned land that it is for a civilian, but a 1,000 square mile haven of opportunity. Morbid curiosity is a powerful driving force and to be on the precipice of such a dangerous location, knowing that the ground and air itself carries potentially harmful pollutants, means that many people want to see it but would be unwilling to actually go.


In 1994, only eight years after a reactor at the power station exploded, David McMillan went to Pripyat armed with a camera and the intention to explore the scenes left behind, sating his own, and other's curiosity of one of humanities darkest hours. What he captured was a post-apocalyptic vision, a city that was once thriving had now began to succumb to the revitalising embrace of nature as the world within the radius of the accident was recovering, it started to reclaim the urban environment.

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Rust, vegetation and general decay of the man-made structures starkly oppose the thriving natural world now in-bloom. Returning a subsequent 20 times since that initial visit, the project now isn't as much about documenting what it looks like, but how it has changed. Pripyat is a source of great intrigue for ecologists, environmentalists and other parties interested in witnessing first-hand the power of the natural world.


Many species of animals thrive there, due to their not being hunted or culled, where they'd usually struggle for survival. It is, in essence, becoming a place of hope, growth and life, not the negative preconceptions that has blighted it's name for so long. As with every city, it has it's own unique genealogy. Pripyat's is perhaps the most unique city in the world. Tourism is on the rise there (up 30% already since the show aired) but so are illegal tours where people are living in the old apartments, risking their lives and the integrity of the time-preserved spaces.


Plants and trees are able to grow again in the once deadly soil, yet logging has been a problem due to the availability of timber. In this sense, the official 'ghost town' is very much alive with its own economy, a unique time capsule that is developing without people shaping its future - a very refreshing and appealing notion to many.

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A city in flux, its this accelerated life-cycle that McMillan has documented in his upcoming book of over 200 photos from the area, 'Growth and Decay: Pripyat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.' That everything happened so suddenly, yet so devoid of clarity and explanation exemplifies the culture of secrecy at the very top of Russian bureaucracy, yet also creates an intricate narrative to explore.


Both a sociological and architectural case study - how a city and its people function and how they serve each other - and a philosophical collection broaching time's healing hands. It's one of the only places in the world where nature has been allowed to fight back, where the organic and green prevail over the rusting metals and crumbling brick.


McMillan talked about the emotional impact too, that the signs of childhood - playgrounds, parks and toys - were all abandoned and now those who lived there, now in their 30s and 40s are facing a spike in thyroid cancer. These people would have been the children whose laughter once punctuated the parent's chatter as they looked on. The future completely unknown. The effects of Chernobyl's nuclear fallout is adversely effecting them all these years on.


In that sense, the book isn't as much about a ghost town, but a town full of ghosts that are still able to haunt people. It's an indictment of abusing power, of a political system built on lies and a gagged media leaving its countrymen in the dark. Lastly, and most importantly, it's a display of the Earth's natural energy, that where there is light, even in places we don't see it, life will grow. Over the decades, it's flourished into its own rich ecosystem. McMillan has compiled this book as a reminder that life operates in a series of full circles and that even our part in it will have a limit, yet life - as a whole - will always survive.

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