note: this was my initial submission story for the new york times traveler at large position that i submitted to in november of last year.
of over 9000 submissions i was in the top 137 to send more information + a submission video.
i was not offered the position.
[i did cry with joy several times along the way of being noticed from such a vast amount of applicants.]
in honor + remembrance of the accident, that happened 32 years ago today, it seemed like a good day to post my story.
Inspired by a museum exhibit in West Texas about the effects of radiation on plant life, I traveled to the exclusion zone of Pripyat to see an aging yellow ferris wheel and a weathered, incomplete set of bumper cars that time forgot in the heart of Ukraine.
Instead of gathering with friends and barbecuing or watching fireworks in the sky, I opted to spend this particular Fourth of July weekend stepping into the past of the sleepy town of Chernobyl. I spent the weekend bunking in an old pension, meeting sun-bathing pups, dining on traditional Ukrainian fare each evening accompanied with the best vodkas I’ve ever had out of antique tea cups, sharing stories and learning about life in Eastern Europe and exploring all the corners I could of this near abandoned spot that once was buried under the Iron Curtain.
Our tour guide, Alexis, was head of the police during the time of the reactor accident and shared personal stories about his experience working and living in Pripyat, along with photos and detailed accounts of life in the city. There was one point where he spoke about his favorite cafe to get a coffee on the main road going into town just as our van pulled up to the same cafe, allowing us to set foot in the same cafe from his story, now in ruin from thirty years of neglect and Ukrainian cycles of seasons. I particularly enjoyed an afternoon where we ventured out of the exclusion zone to the home of a chicken farmer and his wife who lived through the accident, never leaving the area. We listened to their perspective about not evacuating, instead adhering to normal farm life despite the risks of radiation poisoning — all while watching baby chicks scurry about the grounds. Another farmer down the street shared a cup of water with me from his well and showed off several responder and rescue trucks in his lawn from the late eighties.
Though abandoned places certainly aren’t the focal point of my travels, they have always fascinated me ever since childhood when fate would have me stumble upon an abandoned farmhouse in the backwoods of old family property in Indiana. I wanted to know the people who lived there, what dinner smelled like after a long day, the things they laughed about, why they left it behind. That fascination has taken me to a concrete castle facade of a theme park that never was near Beijing, a crashed plane site on a chilly, quiet coast of Iceland and an eerie tucked away Human Zoo Exhibition from the Worlds Fair outside of Paris, to name a few.
The world is full of stories. As a photographer, I’ve always believed there’s something about a photo and how it is seemingly able serve as a placeholder in time. It captures a mood, freezes a feeling. I want to explore and seek out as many as I can.
*surprisingly to some, i have deep affinity for abandoned places. it may have started when an abandoned grocery store in my town never boarded up the windows + i could always veer in as we passed by or my unexplainable vivid dreams about ghosts + eerie places since i was a kid. maybe both, maybe neither.
my submission i could only send five images.
here are a few more than five.
shot on canon 5d mark iii [lilly did not exist when this trip was taken in 2015]
thanks to myke wilken for taking the few shots of me.
i shoot commercial, wedding + destination photography all over the world // [learn more]