Robyn Von Swank’s professional career in photography began when she started taking portraits of comedians in Los Angeles. By making these portraits, she unleashed her innate talent for connecting with subjects, capturing the mood and atmosphere of any given scene by using strong contrasts of light and shadow. She also makes images for art and advertising campaigns for the entertainment industry, and has continued making portraiture of comedians and celebrities.
In addition to Von Swank’s cinematic photographic talent, she is a passionate explorer, and has taken photographs of her travels all around the world. In particular, the photographer’s series on Chornobyl comprises photographs taken over the course of two separate trips to the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone. For those who don’t know, in the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near Pripyat, Ukraine, initiated what should have been a routine safety test on Reactor Number 4. Through a combination of user error and mechanical malfunction, Reactor 4 exploded, spewing massive amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere. To this day, the event is considered to be the most catastrophic nuclear power plant accident in history.
Consequently, thousands of people living in the Exclusion Zone (within a 19 mile radius in all directions from the plant) were exposed to dangerous levels of radioactive contamination before they were evacuated 36 hours after the explosion. Even now, decades later, the Exclusion Zone is considered unfit for human habitation, though roughly 300 re-settlers still live there, refusing to leave the homes that have been in their families for generations. Von Swank’s photographs from the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone play with the light and shadow of this setting both thematically and compositionally, evoking the ghosts of those who unexpectedly left, as well as the vibrance of the re-settlers who remain.
Von Swank’s use of natural light, minimal post-processing, and her refusal to stage photographs sets her work apart from the vast majority of photographs taken by dark, un-empathetic tourists that can be found online. Elegiac and contemplative, her series instead accentuates the natural beauty of the place, serving as a kind of memento mori for the workers’ paradise it was once considered to be. In this interview for LensCulture, Kate Kaluzny speaks to Von Swank about what it’s like to shoot in a town full of ghosts, and what memories have stuck with her since her return.
Kate Kaluzny: What motivated you to visit the Exclusion Zone in the first place? Were you always interested in the story of Chornobyl?
Robyn Von Swank: I grew up on an earthquake fault line in the Pacific Northwest, and I have a lot of specific memories from childhood about being prepared for a “disaster.” We had a huge cabinet in our basement filled with survival supplies, and I remember being extremely aware that something dangerous could happen at any moment. Seeing the events in Chornobyl on the news at a very young age perpetuated the possibility of a major accident in the back of my mind at all times, especially while I was growing up. I didn’t live in fear, but I lived with the knowledge that everything could be taken away in a heartbeat, and I remember being very sad for the people in Ukraine.
KK: Before you arrived at the sites, did you pre-visualize how you wanted to photograph the area? Did you have any guidelines or objectives going in?
RVS: Both Pripyat and Chornobyl have become fairly popular “dark tourist” places to visit, and I originally went on a guided van tour with my friend Phillip Broughton, who is a Health Physicist at UC-Berkeley. He had a professional interest in the zone, and traveling with him was extremely informative. Our guide was great, but I am glad Phil was there to teach me the science of radioactive isotopes and how they express themselves in the environment after a catastrophe like Chornobyl. This informed much of how I interacted with the place, being acutely aware of the human cost involved. There are some leftover items in the Zone, but a lot of them have been posed or even brought in by people looking to set up an emotional image. The bulk of the objects that remained when people fled were ransacked in the early days, before the Zone was more secure. This means that in some parts of the former Soviet Union, there are couches and TVs that may be contaminated to this day.
KK: It’s interesting that people insert objects to stage a certain type of image. How did you work around this staging as a photographer, and how did you visualize your personal ties to the situation in your work?
RVS: I didn’t want to just take “spooky pictures” of abandoned buildings—I wanted to try and photograph this place with respect for what it had gone through. I guess that’s open to interpretation when you see the images, but for me, it had a distinct place in my childhood. It meant a lot to me to visit. I had some idea of what I wanted to photograph going in, but you are at the whim of the tour, and navigating abandoned structures always has a risk of danger, so some things were not possible. But with all urban exploration, when you’re working with this type of space, you always seem to find more than you bargained for. We were lucky to see Reactor 4’s original containment the day before it was covered by the new sarcophagus, and that was a really powerful moment for us. We were some of the last people to ever see it. Reactor 4 was the site of the explosion, and sarcophagi have been built around it twice for the purposes of containment.
KK: So you’ve actually been to the region twice. What were you hoping to achieve on your second visit that you were unable to find on your first, and what new discoveries did you encounter in the region?
RVS: The first time I went, I left feeling like I wanted to go further than the usual packaged tourist route we had just experienced. I wanted to see the homes of the people who had lived in the villages. I wanted to meet the ones who defied the government, coming back to the very place they were born. So on my second trip, I hired a private guide. This allowed me to explore parts of the Exclusion Zone that other tourists don’t often see, like the completely abandoned villages. Often, these sites would take hours to drive to, as the roads weren’t fully maintained, and nobody visits them anymore—except the wolves. I found that out when I noticed fresh wolf tracks in the snow behind me as I was poking around an old farm. Thankfully, the predators have a bounty of prey to eat already, because the Zone continues to grow as a biodiverse forest where animals don’t worry about being killed by humans anymore. There are stray dogs, though, and they are very friendly towards tourists who feed them. Many dogs die in the harsh winters or are eaten by wolves, but there are local initiatives to help these dogs as well.
KK: You were also able to meet with some re-settlers of the region. Your portraits of them are so warm and intimate. What was the experience of meeting and sitting with these individuals like?
RVS: The most powerful part of Chornobyl is the people. I visited with numerous re-settlers—all of them over 80, save two in their 50s. Despite their dwindling numbers over the years, these elderly Ukrainians have deep-seated connections with one another, firmly rooted in the land they live and die on. They are a resilient and strong people who refuse to let one of the worst human-made disasters in history destroy their simple country life. It was the Russian New Year when I arrived, so this meant we would sit in their homes and eat large amounts of cabbage rolls, pork fat, pickled mushrooms, blinis, potatoes, and other wonders of Ukrainian cuisine.
The people were warm, welcoming, and spoke openly about their histories. Some sobbed when speaking of the incident, having been affected so personally. One of them, Maria, is the last one left in her whole village, miles away from any other people. But she will never leave her home. She survived the Nazi invasion in World War II, the Chornobyl accident, and lived under Soviet rule. Her identity is inextricably tied to the soil she stands on, and she seems proud to have lived a full and rich life. I will treasure the hours spent with these incredible people for the rest of my life.
KK: Is there a specific moment with any of these people that resonated strongly with you? Whose story stays with you the most?
RVS: Baba Olga never had children, so she doesn’t have as many visitors as the others. She had a soulful dignity about her, and a rich social life with the other self-settlers. On this particular day, she decided that my partially-shaved head was uncouth and declared that I too should have a khustka (scarf) on my head like the rest of the women in the village. Despite my translator explaining to me that calling a younger woman a “baba” was essentially calling her a “vulgar woman,” I was more than happy to accept this gift and become one with the Babas.
Baba Olga drew me into her bedroom and took out stack upon stack of scarves, piling them on top of each other to find just the right one for me. This woman had very little in her home, but this was one treasure that she made sure she had in abundance. Eventually she landed on a purple one that she felt was right, and helped me tie it on my head. She then gave me one to take back home for my mother so she wouldn’t feel left out. When I left Baba Olga, she stuffed my pockets with candy and apples until they were literally overflowing, then hugged and kissed me, rubbing her soft cheeks against mine. It is forbidden to take food out of the Exclusion Zone, but I made an exception for the candy.
KK: What did you take away from your two trips to Chernobyl? Is there anything about your experiences there that surprised you or didn’t conform to your expectations?
RVS: I was surprised by the fact that most of the self settlers had cell phones and that they had pretty good service in villages within the Zone. They were so hospitable and warm, allowing me to come into their homes and share their food. Their houses and surroundings tell a story of identity and a life spent surviving, loving, and working hard. Their environment is inextricably linked to them, and within their soulful eyes I felt like I could see a whole lifetime.
The actual town of Chornobyl was more inhabited than I expected—people are still living in apartment buildings and working in canteens. However, out in the villages, the houses are surrounded by abandoned ones, and as the years ago by, these homes too will fall into disrepair after the inhabitants pass. None of their children or grandchildren will come to live in this forbidden place. As each season passes, signs that this was a place for humans are slowly devoured by nature, consumed by the piercing frost and trampled over by the forest creatures.
Editor’s Note: You can see the full collection of Robyn’s Chornobyl photos on her website, in the “Curiosities” section, as well as on her travel Instagram account. Additionally, there is an organization called Clean Futures that spays, neuters and vaccinates the stray dogs in Chornobyl. You can help out by donating here.