Fascinating look inside Chernobyl's tourism trade
There are nearly 20,000 posts on Instagram which include the hashtag #ExclusionZone.
Some of these contain quotes from HBO's recent, and excellently reviewed, series Chernobyl, while others are photographs of books which detail the nuclear disaster in Ukraine.
The vast majority, however, are photographs taken from the 2,600 km² area which was evacuated in April 1986 and where it is still unsafe to live. One picture shows an abandoned gymnasium with plants growing between the floorboards, another features bumper cars left to rust at a funfair in the city of Pripyat. Capturing what a city looks like when its inhabitants leave in a hurry, there's a dystopian element to how eerily deserted the buildings look. At least, they did until the crowds started arriving.
Tourism to natural disaster sites has traditionally been something for fringe thrill seekers, however the exposure of HBO's Chernobyl has resulted in an increase in visitors to the area. Speaking to Reuters, SoloEast Tours reported a "30% increase in tourists going to the area in May 2019 compared with the same month last year" and say that "bookings for June, July and August have risen by approximately 40% since HBO aired the show".
As well as photographs which document beloved possessions left behind, there are professional-looking images which show influencers staring pensively into the rubbles of houses, posing while wearing gas masks or even stood in a white boiler suit with a thong exposed. There are troops of men in army suits pointing guns to the sky and groups letting off plumes of coloured smoke from flares.
A forest with overturned cars and one static ferris wheel appear multiple times in people's images, the deserted city of Pripyat serving as a kind of Secret Cinema-style playground for people to capture a part of history with the added danger of entering a high radiation area.
While HBO's series has faithfully recreated Soviet-era Ukraine and the people who lived there, the pictures uploaded by visitors seem more like a Hollywood set visit or Disneyland selfie than the site of a natural disaster. It's the same sort of social media disconnect as those capturing themselves leaping across the grey stones of the Berlin war memorial, or the influencers trampling the rare superbloom of flowers in California for the perfect shot.
Perhaps it isn't entirely surprising. The area surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was being marketed as a dangerous theme park long before the HBO series aired. Last year Chernobyl hosted its first rave and hazard yellow stalls have been selling fake gas masks and novelty items such as radioactive ice cream for years.
The tour industry is booming, with some offering a VIP day-trip to the area as part of a stag do package in Ukraine. A one day tour on travel site Oddviser says in the trip summary: "You'll get hundreds of fantastic pics for Instagram" and promises the trip will give you "mind-blowing emotions!" Another leading Chernobyl tour company advertises the site as a "post apocalyptic world", as though it is an unimaginable future horror rather than a past reality.
The rise of true crime and TV based on historic events has meant a blurring of the lines between entertainment and reality, with viewers invited to pour through the details such as court cases of Ted Bundy in Conversations with a Killer, or Steven Avery in Making a Murderer. While Chernobyl is a dramatic recreation rather than a true crime documentary, the granular details of the real life events covered are being digested and debated in a similar vein.
Unlike these other shows, the Exclusion Zone offers an Instagram-ready set that you can wander through. One that Oddviser claims will make you "convinced that the Exclusion Zone excursion is a kind of computer game". In some ways it already is.
Speaking in the podcast accompaniment to HBO show, series writer Craig Mazin described the feeling of visiting the site of the disaster as a religious experience. “To walk where they walked felt so strange, and also being under that same piece of sky you start to feel a little closer, in a sense, to who they were,” he said.
Though the sea of images coming out of the Exclusion Zone capture the same piece of sky that saw the nuclear accident unfold, the more the area becomes a backdrop to novelty photographs, the further they feel from the tragedy that happened there.