I remember well the days following the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. I was at school and each of us received a dose of iodine…three days after the disaster. Back then in the communist area, the news about the disaster was kept secret in the first crucial hours and days of this cataclysm. Only when some Scandinavian countries started to register unusually high readings of radiation in the atmosphere, the news started to spread. 

Even today 33 years later, the impact of this largest nuclear disaster in the history is unprecedented. The site of the disaster and the surrounding area, called the Chernobyl exclusion area, is now closed to the public. The city of Pripyat, which is located just 3km from the nuclear reactor is now mostly a ghost town, as the entire population was evacuated leaving everything behind. 

Michael Zahra visited Pripyat with his medium format Pentax 645z and captured truly stunning imagery. You will find his entire story from this remarkable trip, including preparations, in the February edition of the Medium Format Magazine. Here is an excerpt from this article. 

© Michael Zahra
© Michael Zahra

We decided on August. After finding an appropriate guide and completing the government paperwork, my flights were booked – Toronto to Warsaw to Kiev. Gear preparation was next on the agenda.

My local guide, Nikolai Fomin (gamma-travel.com), would have a Geiger counter, but I thought it would be interesting to bring my own. I’m an engineer, we’re like that. I found a nice, small, inexpensive one on Amazon. The background radiation in the general area is quite moderate, lower than what you experience on an airplane flight or an MRI, and the so-called “hot spots” are well documented, hence the need to have an experienced guide. I decided on a disposable 3M hazmat suit and disposable booties and medical gloves. The beta radiation would penetrate those materials, but it made cleaning off dust at day’s end a non-issue. A medical-grade face mask was an absolute must. Dusting off mildly radioactive beta particle dust from one’s clothes wasn’t going to be a problem but inhaling radioactive dust and having that radiation in your lungs permanently was a no-no. I decided I wouldn’t protect my 645z and would just use compressed air and disposable cloths at the end of each day for clean-up, a true test of how the hardware would hold up!

© Michael Zahra
© Michael Zahra

I brought my Pentax 645z, an abundance of Lexar SD 64GB memory cards, a Hyperdrive backup drive, and my Pentax 28-45mm, 80-160mm and 90mm macro lenses. My favourite is the 90mm and it turned out I would use it a lot. I would bring my carbon fibre Really Right Stuff tripod and ball head. There was going to be a lot of heavy gear to manage. I didn’t need a flash. I wouldn’t need any grad filters, but I brought my assortment of Lee Filter ND filters and a polarizer. And of course, my iPhone for those mandatory Instagram and Facebook selfies.

The plan was for a full four days of shooting in Chernobyl and Pripyat while staying in a very utilitarian, Soviet-era hotel within the controlled perimeter. Belarus, not far from Chernobyl, had some interesting abandoned sites related to the incident, but the focus was Chernobyl: the epitome of urbex photography, in my mind. 

© Michael Zahra
© Michael Zahra

There were a few key things to shoot in Pripyat / Chernobyl: the amusement park, hospital and nursery, vehicle graveyard, Duga radar array and related buildings, the Jupiter Factory, school and kindergarten, music school, community sports center and pool, cooling towers and various other buildings and equipment sites. We left the sequence to Nikolai to decide. He was very experienced with the sites and what photographers want. One can’t actually go inside the damaged reactors. They are major radiation hot-spots and crews were working on the replacement metal sarcophagus. You could see the action as we drove by each day. The hospital was a major radiation hot-spot with residue left over from first-responders being treated there some thirty years ago. We would leave that until the end as we would have to suit-up for that site. Most things were indoors, so any rain wouldn’t be a major factor.

© Michael Zahra
© Michael Zahra
© Michael Zahra

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