Chernobyl's desolation is ruin porn's hallowed ground. But photographer Darmon Richter says the image of an abandoned Soviet city, untouched since its nuclear disaster, is a carefully constructed facade, a powerful and profitable myth perpetuated by the moneymakers of dark tourism.
Richter's fascination with abandoned landscapes brought us chilling shots of the modern ghost towns of China, sprawling uninhabited cities in a byzantine twist of China's burgeoning economy. But on a recent tour of Pripyat, the Ukrainian city built for Chernobyl's workers and abandoned in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster, Richter saw the flip side of that coin: A sparsely-inhabited, still-dangerous landscape, but one that's more lived-in than the pictures suggest.
Not only does Chernobyl's popularity among urban explorers mean that the location is far from vacant; Richter suspects that many of the most harrowing and chilling photos coming out of the location are completely staged.
Within my own group alone, I observed countless instances of tourists moving these artefacts around, or repositioning furniture for a better shot. I watched a photographer arrange stuffed bears and little dolls so that they sat in line along the edge of a bare, metal-framed bed. I'm sure it made for an excellent photograph… but if my group was by any way representative, then just imagine the cumulative effect of as many as 10,000 visitors interacting with the Zone every year.
Businesses near the accident site have been making money on Chernobyl tourists for over a decade, Richter writes. The practice of bringing visitors to Pripyat is fraught with allegations of profiteering and corruption.
Naturally, there is probably some truth hidden amongst it all — miniature stories, like the upright piano abandoned on the seventh floor of an apartment building, too big for the elevators, too heavy to drag down the stairs — but these genuine insights felt few and far between.
Despite the "radioactive Disneyland" aspect of his tour, Richter was still able to sneak off and do some exploring in areas perhaps more out of reach for casual tourists, where the harrowing truth of Chernobyl still looms.
For heaps of gorgeous photos from Pripyat, and a deeper look at dark tourism in the Chernobyl exclusion zone (as well as the shocking tale of what happens when you eat an apple grown in Pripyat), you simply must visit Darmon's website, The Bohemian Blog. Just don't expect it to conform to your assumptions about Chernobyl in the 21st century.
Pictures: The Bohemian Blog