Presences and Absences of Chernobyl: Interview with Photographer Timm Suess

Picture: "Reactor 5 and 6, and Cooling Tower 1" Timm Suess (CC)

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.

 Hi Timm,

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.

How did you end up visiting in Chernobyl? Is it difficult to arrange a visit?
I remember the Chernobyl accident vividly from the radio news, and I started collecting news clippings about it as a child back in 1986, mainly because my own home town in Switzerland was affected by a significant chemical accident the same year. The topic has always fascinated me, until I came across Robert Polidori’s book Chernobyl & Pripyat – he was one of the first photographers to visit the exclusion zone around 2000. The idea of seeing the abandoned city next to the nuclear plant was sometimes a discussion topic among my friends on photo trips, but really more as a “wouldn’t it be cool if we could go there” kind of topic. So I decided to stop talk about it and just do it. See it for myself.It was quite difficult to arrange the visit, because I wanted more than just one of those disaster tourism bus tours they do. It was important for me to get access to the places I wanted for as long as I needed. So I did a lot of research on the topic, from the history of the place, the accident, to radiation safety and the layout of the zone. I had printed out a detailed Google map of Pripyat and marked all the buildings I wanted to see. Then, through a friend of mine who speaks Russian, I got in touch with the official Ukrainian agency in charge of the zone to arrange for visas and a guide. In the end we were a group of four people, plus the guide and the driver, who spent two days in the exclusion zone. It could have easily been a lot longer, since we saw only a fraction of it.
How long have you a been a photographer? Did you you study photography in college or are you self taught?

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”.

I like what you say about  “the feeling of insignificance of oneself in the face of long stretches time.” Are you familiar with the documentary “Life After People?” I found that watching that movie had a very calming effect on me. You mention in your account of your Chernobyl visit that you found certain areas left you feeling peaceful. How would account for that? Do you think its the lack of people, or the presence of nature taking the area back? What are your thoughts?
Yes, I know the book and the documentary, and there’s also a similar TV series on the Discovery Channel. It’s a topic which has become very front-of-mind in the last couple of years, along with the pictures of abandoned Detroit and the whole “preparing for the zombie apocalypse” craze. Must be a sign of the times, I suppose – people start thinking about the transience of humanity. What’s striking is that it doesn’t take long for everything man-made to just disappear – not millions or even tens of thousands of years. After two thousand years, every trace of us is gone. Humbling.The one place I felt really peaceful in Pripyat (which is the abandoned city next to the Chernobyl power plant) is the port. Really irradiated, because of all of the moss on the ground, but so beautiful with its docks frozen in the icy river, and a little birch tree forest next to it. It felt like coming home to a place I’ve never been. It’s difficult to say why; every abandoned place I’ve visited has its own “presence” or “personality” – not in a spiritual sense, but in a way it reflects in yourself, in what it awakens in you. There are places that feel like cathedrals; there are others that seem dark, brooding or threatening – the amusement park at Pripyat definitely was not a nice spot. Some are inviting, others are hostile, some are sad, and some peaceful. My guess is that is has a lot to do with the architecture and lighting of a space, as well as with the sense that time has stood still after years of activity. Stephen King described that feeling quite well in The Langoliers, which describes what happens with the presence when it has been “used up”.

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.

Are you still radioactive?

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.

What do you predict will be the future of Chernobyl and the exclusion zone? 

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.
Assuming the reactor remains stable I predict that Pripyat will remain a ghost town for centuries. It might become some kind of official memorial site, open to tourism, which has been increasing for some years now. The exclusion zone, which is 30km wide today, probably will become smaller and allow more settlers to return. More wildlife will return and adapt to the radiation. The reactor itself will remain one of the most contaminated spots on earth, uninhabitable for thousands of years.
What are your thoughts on the Fukushima disaster, and what parallels do you see politically, socially and in pop culture between it and Chernobyl?

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.

You mention in your journal that when you return to Chernobyl you plan to speak Russian, Any definite plans yet and how are your Russian lessons coming along? 

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 for agreeing to this interview. It’s been a pleasure!

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.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/rthoneunomia.celine Threedinium

    Very striking photography. It’s quite another to study dispassionately the ruins of an ancient civilisation, quite another to study the ones of our own.

    • http://twitter.com/TedHeistman Ted Heistman

      especially if its radioactive!

  • jack jones

    the old oly brewery is creepy as all get out…….i jumped the fence and walked around outside a bit, but didnt have the balls(or flashlight) to go inside…..too bad. ive always wanted a bearskin.

    • http://twitter.com/TedHeistman Ted Heistman

      Its probably still there. Its on an upper floor. Not tanned at all, just dried. Almost like the Bear carcass is somewhere on the Brewery!

      • jack jones

        yikes…..sounds like a skinwalker’s lair…….or the black lodge. the owls are not what they seem

        • http://twitter.com/TedHeistman Ted Heistman

          The person I explored it with said she sensed all these weird entities and things, but that wasn’t my experience. To me it was just a cool old building.

  • http://twitter.com/TedHeistman Ted Heistman

    That Clock picture is awesome!

    • http://www.facebook.com/rthoneunomia.celine Threedinium

      The gas masks that look like worms…

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