Timm Suess is a photographer specializing in abandoned structures. In March 2009 he went on an expedition to the zone of exclusion in Chernobyl, Ukraine and the neighboring town of Pripyat. His Chernobyl Photographs have appeared in the Sunday Times Magazine, the Sun in the UK, and in the science journal Nature. His photographs are also featured in the book Beauty in Decay.
He lives with his wife and in Switzerland.
I’ve been spending some time looking through your website Many Faces of Decay. I actually have an interest in abandoned structures, as well. A friend and I explored and photographed an abandoned brewery a few years ago here in Olympia, WA where I live. It’s a very elegant old brick building. We found a black bearskin inside that a squatter had left there, of all things. I plan to go back there with a GoPro camera and make a film. I am also fascinated by Chernobyl and how it appears to be reverting to nature, with wolves and wild horses wandering around. So what draws you to exploring and photographing abandoned structures and how long have you been doing it?
Hi Ted, pleasure to meet you, and thanks for your interest in my work!
I guess I’ve been fascinated with large, unusual spaces ever since my father had shown me a set of 3d pictures of an old airship hangar from the 1920s when I was very little. I remember looking through his stereoscope and thinking: “I want to see something like this for myself!”. After photographing old doors for a couple of years, a friend of mine took me along to see an old potassium mine in France – after that I was hooked.
What fascinates me about these places on the one hand is the feeling of insignificance of oneself in the face of long stretches time. People are very bad at imagining what the passage of long time spans does, which is why time lapse movies feel so alien to us. On the other hand, I find it also very fascinating what happens to places where people were once an important part – such as a factory – and then are left by them. It’s like their absence creates something new, and I try to document that.
I’m a self-taught photographer. It’s a serious hobby, but not my profession – I’m actually an industrial psychologist by trade. I started photographing when I was five, and I’ve been doing abandonments since 2002. I’ve had a couple of exhibitions, as well as a lot of publications in the wake of the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl and the Fukushima accident.
That’s interesting that you are an industrial psychologist. What kind of a place do you imagine it would have been to work there at Chernobyl in the days immediately before the accident? Did you feel any trace of the mindset or emotional states of the people who lived and worked there?
From what I’ve read and heard about Pripyat, it must have been a great and hopeful place to live back before the accident. The city had been home to 50,000 USSR citizens and had been especially built for the new Chernobyl power plant in the 1980. I’ve seen pictures of happy families picnicking at the river beach, and the city center was full of cutting edge architecture and infrastructure, at least for Soviet conditions. The people were proud and happy to live and work in such a place.
What struck me about the buildings at Pripyat was the immediacy in which it was left to ruin. I will never forget the arts and crafts project on the wall in one classroom which had faded passport photographs of children on it. It’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.
The amusement park was another place I think about a lot: A Ferris wheel, some rides and some bumper cars, ask prepared for the big opening on May 1st, 1986, which never came. They were never used, and now the wind and the spooky creaking of rusty metal bars is the only thing you hear in this place. It’s one of the most contaminated spots in Pripyat.
By the way, people still work in the Chernobyl power plant, we saw quite a lot of workers. The last reactor was shut down around 2000, and since you can’t just shut off a nuclear reactor from one day to the other, it will take years to “turn it off”.
We seem to share a similar long standing affinity for the place: I remember reading about the Chernobyl disaster as a kid in National Geographic magazine, and most recently I have been following news stories about the wolves, wild boars and, most recently, wild horses that are flourishing there. Did you encounter any wild life or see any evidence of wild animals during your visit?
After reading Mary Mycio’s book Wormwood Forest, I really expected to see wild animals in the zone. But strangely, I didn’t see any, except for a large bird near the port café. Otherwise, no animals, no animal sounds, not even beetles. Maybe it had to do with the fact that it was late winter when I went there. And there seems to be some controversy about if the fauna is really flourishing in the zone – I don’t know what the latest findings are.
Did you or any of the people in your group have any interests in ghosts? Any eerie, unexplained paranormal activity to report?
Our guide seemed to have some ghost stories about the zone, but didn’t really want to talk about them. I however didn’t expect nor see any ghosts or other paranormal activity around Chernobyl. The most eerie thing I’ve seen were the “ghost trucks” which drive around Pripyat carrying radioactive debris and carrying a large plume of dust after them. The strange thing about them was that you never saw who drove them – or if anyone was really driving them.
I was however contacted by a ghost hunter about my Chernobyl experiences who asked me a lot of very specific questions about my trip, which was a lot of fun, and I’m still in contact with her on Facebook. That’s one of the examples of the many interesting people I’ve met after my trip: From the architecture student who wrote about post-apocalyptic preparation concepts to the audio artist who wanted to create soundscapes based on my recordings, to game designers, journalists, film makers or officials at the IAEA: Chernobyl seems to speak differently to everyone.
Scientifically speaking, everybody is radioactive, all the time. But in terms of aftereffects of my visit: No, and if I can trust the radiation checks I went through in the zone, I haven’t taken any radioactivity home with me. According to the lab grade Geiger counter I had taken onto my trip, the overall amount of gamma radiation I have been exposed to was equivalent to half the dose of radiation you get from a dental x-ray. And my exposure to alpha and beta particles – that’s the ones that can’t hurt you unless you get them into your body through food or air – well, I took precautions such as using rubber gloves, dust masks, not eating in the field and staying away from strongly contaminated spots, but I’ll never know. I am convinced that the danger from asbestos, toxic mold or chemicals in the buildings we visited was actually higher than the one posed by radiation.
Nobody really knows what’s going on inside that disaster reactor 4 today. It’s still hot for sure, and the structures around it are crumbling. The Ukrainian government has been planning to contain the old reactor under a large hangar-like structure. It would be one of the largest man-made structures ever built. But they’ve been planning this for such a long time, and construction still hasn’t begin – I’m not sure they’ll ever get the funding to do so.
What happens and what continues to happen in Fukushima is a tragedy or enormous proportions – bigger than Chernobyl. And it’s not over, because the fuel containments still aren’t safe, the dangers of further disasters continue to be swept under the rug, and nobody has a clue what’s really going on. That’s why it’s so important to support organizations like safecast.org, who set up crowdsourced infrastructures to measure and report radiation – not only in Japan, but anywhere in the world.
On the face of it, there don’t seem to be many parallels between the two disasters. Chernobyl was caused mainly by human error, Fukushima by natural causes, but under the surface, there have been political constellations and decisions which have led up to a thoroughly unstable system of risk factors; in Chernobyl, time pressure to construct the reactor had led to the postponement of critical safety tests until *after* the opening of the plant.
In Fukushima, the decision to build a reactor on the shore and so close to a fault line, or to store the used fuel rods the way they were is very questionable. Socially and culturally, those two incidents will forever be part of the culture and society they happened in, and time will tell what it means for their societies. I just hope those reactors remain stable.
I still think that I might return to the zone one day, but there are other abandoned sites I’d like to visit first, some of them in the far east, some of them in the US. No definite plans yet, and no Russian lessons so far either.
Thank you, the pleasure was mine! I encourage your readers to visit my Chernobyl Journal on http://timmsuess.com/chernobyl-journal to read the story and see the pictures and videos of the zone for themselves and learn about the history of Chernobyl. With over 500 photographs it’s the biggest Creative Commons-licensed collection of pictures from Chernobyl and Pripyat, which means you can use them freely for own projects under the Creative Commons rules.