Early in 2013, I was commissioned by Carpet Bombing Culture to photograph the abandoned buildings of the former Soviet Union and its Satellite states. I travelled to 10 countries in Eastern Europe, The Baltics, Ukraine and of course Russia to capture what is left from the collapse of the Soviet Union such as forgotten towns, factories, prisons, schools, monuments, hospitals, theatres, military complexes, asylums and death camps across the former communist countries and occupied satellite states. I even came across a Soviet submarine in the UK.
My aim with the book was to capture the crumbling empire of the former Soviet Union, before it is gone completely. The title Soviet Ghost comes from the ghosts and stories that are left behind after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The former USSR was once a living, breathing place, but with the fall of a Communism, places now lies derelict, uninhabited, broken shells of a forgotten time. The collapse of the Soviet Union left haunting memories of ordinary people who once lived and worked there.
While some may look at the decay in these places as simply reflecting the destruction of the Soviet Union and the moral bankruptcy of a flawed ideological system, in reality they will cease to exist. As the memories fade, these places and the communities who once gave life will be forgotten. They deserve to be recorded for posterity.
In 2006, I began experimenting with photography, taking photos of models during my degree in Graphic Design. Upon leaving university, I got a full-time job a portrait studio, where I worked for 4 years, during which, I set up a small home studio and started photographing models. I did a master degree in fashion photography at The London College of Fashion and graduated in 2010. I worked as a freelance fashion photographer for a couple of years, but always had a feeling that it wasnt quite for me. I loved photographing beautiful things, but felt constrained by working for clients, deadlines and magazine specifications — a lot of stress was involved. My work has always had a dark nature to it — the beauty in darkness will be a theme that carries on throughout all I do.
I first went to a Victorian asylum around 10 years ago, I didn’t really take photos back then, but it was amazing all the same. It wasn’t until 2012 when I did a shoot in an abandoned building that I really fell in love with capturing the beauty in these places. My whole outlook on photography changed it was like a whole new beginning and now I work as a fine art photographer.
After a year of capturing abandoned buildings in the UK and Belgium, I decided I wanted to make a book, but this kind of book had already been done before, so I wanted to find something different that hadn’t been done before. It was a trip to Chernobyl, Ukraine that sparked my interest in the Soviet Union and with the collapse of such a huge empire, it was clear there would be a lot of abandoned buildings left behind. I made it my challenge to find them. I searched for places around the former Soviet Union and its satellite states that had some kind of Soviet history, whether the Soviets had been there forever or even just a hint of their presence. It was important for me to capture all of this history.
I refrain from having personal opinions about the era and try to remain relatively neutral. While the period had bad times, the people living in the communities still got on with life. There were good and bad times — it was not a period of pure black and white — and so my aim of the book was to just capture it as it was now. Some places would have been thriving and others horrible places to be and you can see this reflected in my book and some of the text that accompanies. But that is life, time moves on and things like this disappear. Some people may see the ruins of this time as destructive, but I see the beauty in the decay, like a memory hanging on that will soon be lost in a breeze, a museum that no one gets to see.
I love the excitement of planning trips to go to these places, the thrill of getting in and then seeing these places with objects still remaining, I can’t really say “untouched,” as these places change from week to week, be it from nature claiming back or the humans that encounter them, but this is what makes them special to me, how they change and decay.
People sometimes comment saying the photos may looks staged, but I very rarely stage things in the photo, it may be that another photographer has set up a photo, but I will try and capture things as they are. I sometimes move objects so they will be in the photo, but I’ll never take things into a location that didn’t exist previously, I will always shoot what is there.
I love that these places are like museums unseen to the public and capturing their beauty before it is lost is an amazing feeling, the emotion and history captured in the photos always makes people admire these photos. I am obsessed with decay and abandonment, but who knows what it will evolve into.
I think as humans we are curious about things we don’t recognise or are familiar with, there is true beauty in things that are decayed. I guess it’s the poetry that sings to us of nature claiming back what once was. After the exciting challenge of getting into the buildings my breath is often taken away when I enter a different world. The textures and smells are unusual to normal life. It’s this lack of humans in the space for so long that makes these places so eerie. Your imagination is set on fire by what the people once were like in the places and what they used to do there and then why are they no longer there.
I don’t find these places scary in anyway. On fact, I feel safer in a place untouched by humans where only nature prevails than in the really bustling, hectic world where humans rush around in the chaos that is life. When in abandoned buildings, I feel relaxed and I turn off from the stresses of everyday life.
Some people ask me if I am fearful of ghosts or bad people being in the buildings, but I guess I just don’t feel this. When I enter a building I turn off to emotions like that and I all I can think about is creating images. I want to capture the beauty I see and feel in that photo. I want to make the viewer feel how I felt while in the space. The things we hone in on are things with emotional attachment or just something that looks so beautiful we couldn’t have ever imagined it. These are the things I search for and hope to capture to show people. Through these images I want to breathe life back into these forgotten places.
My first trip for Soviet Ghosts was in October 2012, to Chernobyl, Ukraine. I had ideas that I wanted to make a book, but this was the trip that I took to the publisher and explained my idea. All photos were completed by December 2013.
I went on 6 different road trips for the book to over 10 different countries, from the Soviet Union and its occupied states, on each trip there was always 4 of us, I managed to get people from the countries we visited to join me and help me researching and finding the locations. I also had my husband and one of my best friends to join me on a number of the trips. I went away from the adventure meeting many amazing people from so many different countries and I feel very lucky for the effort and help they gave to make the book happen.
For me the place that had most impact on me emotionally was Chernobyl, I have visited many abandoned buildings, some of which have affected me deeply and emotionally. But never had I encountered a whole town, which had been devastated by disaster to such a degree. Decaying slowly and sadly, the town is a snapshot of how Soviet life once was. It was therefore important to me to capture and share it as it is today.
Sitting on the train to Chernobyl, the landscape was beautiful with trees and water. I could already see nature claiming back what humans had laid waste to. The Exclusion Zone is 30km in radius and entering it felt very strange, as if I were venturing somewhere I wasn’t meant to be.
On arrival, we had to pass security check points. The Exclusion Zone is subject to the tightest security, requiring a passport check, a government permit and that you are accompanied by an authorised guide. When you return, you are required to undergo a full body scan to show that your radiation exposure is within the safe limits. It was just like a scene from Tarkovsky’s dystopian film Stalker. We explored the town for three days, its schools, hospital, sports centres, prison, swimming pools and post office.
Its very hard to put into words such an overwhelming experience as the one I had in my three days of being in the Zone. It has opened my mind to the fragility of humanity and how what humans create can cause so much damage to the world. But no matter what humans may do to the planet, nature will return and claim it all back, as it has within the Zone.
There were some rather hair raising experiences while making the book, not many urban explorers travel to Russia, where the rules are very different, locations are heavily guarded and a strong military presence exists everywhere. There are serious consequences for getting caught. We managed stay hidden for all of the trip, we maximised our stealthiness, ducking and diving into bushes and sneaking past sleeping security. But on one day, our good fortune ran out.
It was day three and we visited a top secret radar installation. After walking through the forest, mosquitoes attacking us from all directions, we saw the radar and made our way towards it. Just metres away, we were joined by military and they weren’t happy.
After a long conversation between Konstantine, Igor and the soldiers in Russian, they led us to a secured courtyard filled with weapons and more soldiers. We had no idea what was being said or what we were waiting for. We just glanced at each other nervously. I think they were perturbed that we had managed to get so close to the installation, which was actually being dismantled at the time. After about twenty minutes there was a strong knock on the metal door; the soldiers all stood to attention. An officer in full military uniform appeared and subsequently around 30-40 armed soldiers piled out of an army truck to surround him, standing to attention, staring straight ahead.
He ushered us into the truck past the soldiers, where Ian and I shared a look of relief. The colonel sat in the front, and I held my breath as we drove. After five minutes the truck pulled into the military base, where we were led to a room by the colonel and his commander. It was like a small lecture theatre, and we sat at desks while he sat in the middle of the table at the front. He began to speak and again for a long ten minutes we didn’t know what was being said. We were stripped of our possessions, told we would be interrogated and that a translator needed to be located. We were being held on suspicion of espionage.
I was subsequently led by six armed soldiers to a room with a double-padded door, where a man in a suit was sitting with the translator. I’ll never forget that corridor, the backlighting, the soldiers protecting our door, their helmets, guns and the shadows cast on the floor.
The questions were easy at first: my name, my intentions for being in Russia. Then it started to get weird. He asked me why I was at the radar installation and asked me if I knew I could go to prison for over fifteen years for being a spy. I tried to explain I was just a photographer, but the man wanted proof that I wasn’t spying, being very suspicious of my UK passport with stamps from Ukraine, USA and now Russia. I had no idea how to prove my innocence.
Over an hour later I was allowed to rejoin my companions and then began the boring wait. It had already been five hours, but many more were to follow. To use the toilet an armed guard escorted us there and back. After six hours they gave in to our pleas for food and the translator brought us some army food, bread, cheese and meat sliced with an army knife. We were insanely bored, the ticking of the clock driving us mad. After about ten hours they gave us our possessions back — the light at the end of the tunnel. They had taken our camera cards. Finally the colonel returned, and I have no idea what was said, but finally we were set free.
Apart from that, we had one more capture while in Slovakia. We had just arrived at the hospital and quite literally went over to check a window to see if it was open and 2 police cars pulled up, it was clear they had not been called because of us as we had only just got there, but they still questioned us for half an hour, with not much understanding with the language barrier. We tried to persuade them that my husband was going to the toilet, but apparently this is also very bad and a finable offence in Slovakia. Finally they found the real culprits. They looked like homeless people, but who knows, we probably looked quite homeless too after being in so many dirty abandoned buildings for so many days.
In Berlin, we managed to write off our hire car in a big crash, but we all got away unscathed and a couple of days later, we ran our battery dry in a really remote location in Germany. Luckily we finally got some help and got the car started again.
For me, the photo I am most proud of is the cover photo, taken at Buzludzha in Bulgaria — an abandoned communist monument (the cover photo). It was the most poignant locations in the whole journey of Soviet Ghosts. Not only does this photo encapsulate a part of history literally frozen in time, where a Communist empire once thrived and lavished with rich furnishings and beautiful mosaic murals on the walls. But this photo captures a feeling of desolation and the forgotten, like a memory on a breeze, the mist is ghostly and surreal and this is why I chose it for the cover.
It was also one of the more challenging locations to get to as it was at the top of a mountain and there was a lot of snow and mist. My greatest memory was standing on top of a tiny wooden platform at the top of Buzludzha’s tower, my safety not entirely certain. Later, looking up at the platform from the ground, I could see it might well have crumbled and plunged me to my death at anytime. It had taken an hour of climbing up frozen metal rungs, a test of endurance. I had lost the feeling in both hands and as the space became more and more narrow the further we climbed. We had to leave items behind.
Nothing really could have prepared me for opening the hatch to the roof and walking out onto it for the first time. I walked fast to the edge, which was when the sheer magnitude of nature truly hit me. I have not been left speechless many times before, but standing there, above the clouds, seeing the sky light up a beautiful red and pink with the sun sinking into the white blanket. This was one of those ethereal moments in life, the ones that will stick with you an entire lifetime, one you will narrate for years to come. Standing on top of a 70 meter high tower on top of a 1441 meter high mountain, above the clouds watching as the mist clears and witnessing possibly the best sunset I have ever seen in my life, with friends, is a moment I will never forget.
So not only does this photo capture the feeling a felt in a place so desolate, like being on a completely different planet, it also shows the dedication that went into creating the photos and preserving memories before they are gone.
I wasn’t the only person involved with the making of the book, Tristi Brownett, Owen Evans and Neill Cockwill wrote the chapters for Soviet Ghosts. Tristi has been a friend for many years, she inspires and nurtures me with my photography and she herself is a very inspiring and talented person with great knowledge on the health sector. Tristi was one of the first people I told I wanted to create a book on the abandoned Soviet Union and I would be needing someone to write the text for the book and she wrote me this email:
I just had a message from someone I used to work with, his name is Owen Evans and he is a professor of Film in the media department at Edgehill University. He has done some stuff on cultural memory (which in part is what your book is about). I spoke with him about your idea a while back because he is the Berlin – GDR expert I mentioned to you previously. As you can see by his job title and the areas that his interests straddle, that he is well connected around the world though I don’t think that he has anyone in Russia! I asked him if he would talk to you about getting a proposal together as he does it all the time for his own books, he also knows a little bit about what makes research proposals successful and eligible for grants. He is a really helpful and encouraging guy. He says he’s seen your work via my twitter and thinks it’s a great idea. He is willing to help you in any way he can.
It wasn’t long before we all meet up (Neill included who works at Edgehill University). We chatted over drinks in London and we all got along like a house on fire, bouncing ideas off each other. It was obvious we made a fantastic team and that we would all share the writing of the book as we all had qualities we could add to its production. I feel very lucky to have had their participation in making this book happen.
Through my work I simply try to find beauty in darkness, poetry and meaning in the forgotten and surreal, imaginary worlds amongst decay, breathe life into forgotten historical locations, reawaken old narratives, find beauty and meaning in their ruin and revive the memories of lost moments in places tainted by the indigenous.
Unseen to the ordinary public who pass their boarded windows and fenced walls, no trespass signs refrain communities from seeing the hidden world within, slowly being claimed back by nature unseen. I find entry to these mystical places hidden to the world and sensitively captures them as a beautiful record, as they deserve to be recorded for posterity too, before they are lost as time rolls inexorably on. I capture the stories and characteristic through carefully composed images, to include the romanticism and memories of the ruins.