How I got the Shot – The Reader of Prypiat and also a brief history and description of the visit of Chernobyl and Prypiat
I am sincerely very proud of the name of that picture. It describes perfectly the place, the action happening and the past. The first reaction is to think, why “The Reader”, there is no one there, just a book and a broken chair. Then you realize that it’s all there is in Chernobyl, broken stuff, still in place and memories, memories of the person that used to live there, that used to read there.
Yes it really is in Chernobyl and no it’s not hard nor complicated to get there. In fact it’s becoming more and more touristic, nothing so hardcore about the visit. You book online (that was quite sketchy though), you hope that it works and you are supposed to meet someone on Maidan Square, in front of the McDonalds. Due to recent events, I’m not sure the meeting place is still the same but in those days it was very peaceful.
Meeting time was early in the morning and as we were arriving in Kiev early in the morning, I went through a little moment of panic as I got lost in the metro but everything turned out fine. To my big surprise, there really was someone waiting for the group in my name was on the paper, indicating it was paid, no scam there! I was looking professional, no doubt about that; barely in time, half lost in the city, half asleep from the train ride and clutching my big 1L bottle of milk (I read somewhere on the internet that milk could maybe reduce the exposure to radiation, why not?)…
Once you confirm who you are and that you paid, they put you in a minivan with about 10 other tourists which is nice because it’s not a big tour bus full of other potentially “objects to photoshopped” and noisy persons. During the two hours ride from Kiev to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone they show you a good documentary about the disaster and what really happened, great idea to get in the mood. I remember, they mention that all the photo and videographers had their films altered because of the radiations and it shows in the movies and pictures. This freaked me out quite bad because I had just bought my new 7D days before and the possibility of my new baby altered by radiation was not really enchanting. Good thing it was ok. Actually, I think the 7D could resist pretty much everything, from radiation, to the sand of the Egyptian deserts, to the snows of the North of Quebec, this thing is a beast!
Anyway, when you enter the zone, you have to go through many security and passport checks but no one seems to be too stressed. When finally inside, you go in a building where they explain in details what happened on a map (just show me the ruins and let me take pictures already!) and give you a rather eatable meal (just show me the ruins and let me take pictures already). I take the opportunity here to give one serious piece of advice: bring water bottles when visiting Chernobyl. Water is not drinkable (duh) but they can’t give you any, they only give you kvas. If you’re Russian or Ukranian, drinking fermented bread is great but for us, Quebec folks, that thing is a nightmare. Bring water because you will be thirsty and having to drink kvas is just torture.
After everything, you have to sign a contract (just show me the ruins and let me take pictures already!) saying you understand the risk, won’t be stupid and won’t cry if you touched something dangerous. It seriously is important not to touch any metal, go into the woods, put a tripod on the ground or bring anything from the zone (duh…) You get in the car again and they bring you to some of the famous areas, always showing the Geiger meter how bad or how normal radiations are. Near metal tanks, it’s crazy dangerous, near the Black Forest it’s impossible to get out of the car but near the reactor itself it’s not so bad. You get to see the reactor from close but it’s hard to get any good picture. Once all the classic “sightseeing” is over and you really get into the abandoned city of Prypiat. That’s the part where you get to be shown the ruins and let to take pictures already.
The minivan stops in front of the school, gym, etc and after a small visit of the main spots (like the very famous pool) you are told; everyone meet here in half an hour. It’s like opening the door of a candy shop to a kid and telling him, Ok take what you want and let’s meet up in half an hour. I know the most tragic nuclear accident happened there but 25 years later, as a photographer, the photo opportunities are many.
So that’s pretty much how it works, you have some free time by yourself to explore, only rules are; don’t touch anything, don’t use a tripod, don’t drink the water and please, oh please just don’t be stupid. It really is a strange feeling. It’s like being in a movie or somewhere else, it does not feel real. Everything is nearly as it was when it happened. People left without packing anything, classrooms are still full of school books and material, furniture everywhere and I even stumbled upon a room full of gas masks on the ground, don’t ask. Sometimes, you just walk and you hear water dripping around from the ceiling and you know eventually you will receive some drops on your head. I still remember that cold (and highly radioactive) water dripping in my hair and just thinking: oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit…good times.
Finally this post is more about the whole Chernobyl experience that many people asked so often than really explaining the single image. As I was exploring Prypiat, in fact I think that I took this shot at the very beginning when entering the school, it was just there, close to the door. A single chair with a missing leg and a book in front, still opened. It could be that the reader took a break to go grab a tea and come back to his book but he never did, or maybe he just never really left, who knows. Everything was just perfect as it was and I only had to frame simply according to the rule of third, placing the chair in the left third of the picture and leaving space in front of it as it faces that direction. The eye first goes to the chair and then down to the book in front and to the rest of the room which is full of broken glass and rough textures. A quick look around the famous chair.
That’s one thing that shocked me most in Prypiat, the broken glass, everywhere you walk, really everywhere, you make noises as the glass breaks. There is not a single space of floor without broken glass. At the end of the visit, they make you go through these radiation detectors but really, they don’t seem too stressed about it. I went through without any problems.
I have thought many times about that visit as it is something rather uncommon (but getting more and more common) and I wish to go back there one day. Take my time, explore the area and mainly talk to people who are still there, see their way of life and also, how nature regains the control everywhere. One day, I will.
You liked the story? You like the picture? Good news is that you can buy it as a print online! Not only does it provide you with amazing art to display in your house but it is also the best way to help me continue and improve my work, cheers!
Important things to remember if you do not want to read the whole story even though you should
- In nuclear disaster areas, bring some water but drink milk before
- Book in advance your trip to Chernobyl and do take time to do it while in Kiev
- Learn about the story and what really happened there
- Do not bring a tripod, but do bring a hat and good shoes
- High ISO in dark places
- Wide angle lenses can take much in a single image but you still have to create a link between all those objects if you want to tell a real story
- Don’t change lenses too much in a radioactive area
- Rest assured, sensors are not affected by radiations
- Bring a flash in case