Almost 30 years ago a catastrophic man-made disaster echoed around the globe. The Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor melted down. There are still plenty of people around who remember seeing the fallout on the evening news, and the tragedies surrounding the ongoing containment efforts. I suppose teenagers today would say “Chernobyl who”, but there are so many lessons to be learned from those events. Philip Grossman of Colorado is one who believes in the value of learning from history, and has dedicated many years to filming and photographing the restricted zone surrounding Chernobyl. Much of his work has been done via drone. We interviewed Philip to learn more about his fascination with Chernobyl and how drones fit into his work there.
Tell us about yourself and your background.
I am an engineer by schooling (Bachelor of Science in Architectural/Civil Engineering, University of Colorado, Boulder) and practiced for several years before going to graduate school to earn a Masters in Business Administration. Upon finishing my masters I worked as a technology consultant and strategist for Ernst & Young and CapGemini, primarily in the Telecom, Media and Entertainment industries.
I started taking photos at the age of 13 and have always been fascinated by technology and art, which is probably why I continue to find myself working in the media and entertainment industry as it is the apex of art and science.
I currently work as the Director of Global Solutions Architecture for Imagine Communications, a global leader in video infrastructure, advertising systems and workflow management solutions serving the media networks, broadcast stations, digital media, communication service provider and enterprise markets spanning 185 countries.
How did you get started flying drones?
I started flying drones because of the Chernobyl Project. During my first visit to the Chernobyl Nuclear Zone in 2011 I managed to secure a helicopter flight. It was so fascinating to see the region from that perspective. However, due to flight restrictions, we weren’t able to get as close as I would have liked to in many areas. So as I began planning for my second expedition, I was trying to figure out how to get photos from a different perspective.
I was living in Atlanta at the time, which is home to Atlanta Hobby and UAV Experts. Cliff Whitney, the owner, and his team were amazingly helpful in introducing me to the world of drones, which was just starting to grow. The Phantom hadn’t even been released yet.
At the time I had my private pilot’s license and an instrument rating so flying was something I was knowledgeable about, however, I have never really flown anything RC. It was definitely a “jump in the deep end” moment for me. I purchased a DJI S-800 with a Naza System and had about 3 hours of flying before landing in Kiev, Ukraine.
What exactly is the Chernobyl Project? How did you get connected with that, or decide to start working on it? Do you have any historical or family ties to Chernobyl?
I grew up near three mile island in Pennsylvania and lived through that event when I was 9 years old. I believe this started my fascination with Nuclear Energy. Fast forward 32 years or so and I decided to take a break from “corporate America”. My then girlfriend (now wife) Elizabeth Hanson told me to focus on my fine art photography for a year. At that point I had a few small gallery shows and met with the curator of the High Museum in Atlanta who said they all liked my work but there wasn’t a cohesive body.
So I set out to figure out what I could photograph that would be different, that few people had or could photograph. And I kept coming back to Chernobyl (my family is from the Ukraine originally at the turn of the 20th Century). So I decided that is where I would go photograph. I took my first trip in Nov 2011, thinking it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity and went mainly to photograph, but took a small Panasonic TM700 handicam for personal video. Three months after returning to the states, my partner Arek from Poland (who helped arrange my first visit) asked if I wanted to go back and of course I said yes, but on the condition that we could spend more than 4 days in the zone. I have now made 4 trips and spent 32 days in the zone with a 5th trip leaving on May 24 for another 12 days. I have also moved from shooting 90% stills/10% video to 98% video/2% stills. I now have a collection of 3,000 photos (I have shot well over 15,000) and about 30 hours of video with 50% being 4K. I am also the first person to fly a drone in the the Chernobyl Region almost 4 years ago.
What type of drones and gear are you flying?
I am a technology geek and seem to collect drones, though recently I have been able to give some up. I currently own a Phantom 2, Phantom 3, Inspire 1 (all DJI) and a new xFly Systems xFold (www.xfoldrig.com). For me they are tools used to create photos or films. The Phantoms are great for tight areas (and inside flying). The Inspire is my “go to” for most of my work as it is simple to operate and very integrated – I can think less about flying and more about creating images. The xFold is really for serious film work. It is amazingly transportable and can lift a cinema style camera (FS7 is what I shoot as well as GH4).
Can you describe what it’s like flying in Chernobyl? Any stories about flying there stand out in your memory?
Its extremely “eerie” just being in the zone – you feel like you are flying in an area that time has forgotten. It’s like flying in both a city and a forest at the same time. Nature has completely taken over the city of Pripyat (3 Km from the Nuclear Complex). And a lot of my flying there is not line of sight, so heading and altitude are very important. Over the past three years of flying there I have seen the technology improve by leaps and bounds.
Video downlinks are very important when filming and even more so when you fly your craft well beyond visual sight. My first system was a simple SD downlink and had horrible range so I was only able to fly about 500 feet from my location before losing signal (a lot of that had to do with the dense forest growing in the city)
This most recent trip I flew my Inspire 1 with the built in light bridge system and I was able to fly over 3,000 feet away from my location and with a clear line of site was getting over 4,500 feet, which was great, because this recent trip I was required to get permits from the Secret Police in the “zone” and had to stay at least 1.5 Km from the reactor complex. With the distance I got on the Inspire, I was able to fly from the Yaniv train station (outside the 1.5 Km zone) and get to a distance of just over 1 km from the reactor. I believe this is the closest a drone has flown to the complex.
You mentioned you got married there recently. What was it like getting married in Chernobyl?
My then fiance, Elizabeth Hanson, was planning on going with me on this expedition. This would be her 2nd time in the zone. She did not want to have a big wedding and several of her friends suggested we should have a destination wedding, that way not a lot of people would show up. She decided that Chernobyl would be the destination as no one would show up 🙂 She really wanted to do something small and intimate that had meaning in our life. She had been the one to originally encourage me to photograph in Chernobyl and it has been a big part of our lives since we met. Also, my family’s last stop before coming to America at the turn of the 20th century was the Ukraine. She decided it should be the place to we got married.
We managed to get permission only days before departing. It was a very small ceremony, more cameras there than people (a team from DJI was with me during part of this expedition to produce a story about me and how DJI products have helped me to tell the story.) We got married in only one of two churches still intact in the Zone.
It was a very special moment in my life and a fantastic way to start a new life with my wife.
Thanks so much for sharing your insights. Anything else we haven’t touched on that you want to share with our readers?
The goal of the project is to raise awareness of the events of the past to ensure we don’t repeat them. To many people’s surprise, I am not anti nuclear, but “anti stupid people.” We must think and weigh the consequences of our decisions hopefully before we act.
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