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Johnny Wilson
  • Johnny Wilson

Taking the BeLomo Vilia into Chernobyl

Updated: Jan 14, 2021

Back when I was a young boy in my early twenties, I worked in Estate Agency, before moving into Property Management (the day job). Estate Agency tends to have it's busy days, and it's really quiet days and in those really quiet days I used to browse Wikipedia when I was bored. It was back then I first started to read about Chernobyl, the accident, and eventually ended up following the New Safe Confinement project from concept to conclusion. It became one of those "weird interests" I have, some of the others being 9/11, MH370, and Cicada 3301 to name just a few... so when my girlfriend first texted me and said "we're organizing a trip to Chernobyl, do you want in?" (or words to that effect...) I, first of all, was obviously IN and second of all immediately knew which digital camera I was going to take: my trusted Canon G7XII! It's now my go to travel camera and it's great, e.t.c., but choosing which film camera I was going to take proved to be more of a difficult decision. In my head I toyed with taking my Olympus Pen EE3; being half frame I could get more shots out of a roll of film, then I toyed with taking my Olympus OM10 because I have a 28mm, 50mm and 135mm set of lenses so much more versatility, but then I read Chernobyl Prayer (a.k.a. Voices from Chernobyl) by Svetlana Alexievich on my work commutes, and read about the plight and the suffering that the people of Belarus endured in the aftermath of the disaster and my thoughts immediately turned to taking my little Belorussian rangefinder... my BeLomo Vilia.

Manufactured in Belarus during it's time spent as a member of the USSR, I've dated it to a year of manufacture of roughly 1980 (perhaps a little earlier, but no later). I actually picked it up, boxed, brand new, still wrapped in tissue paper at a camera fair in Wolverhampton about a year ago for the paltry cost of £5 and I love it. I love the way it looks, I love the way it works and I love the photos it takes. It feels cheap in places, the plastic feels a bit cheap and part of it feels a little bit fragile but I don't need premium build quality to appreciate a camera. Something about the cheap, mass manufactured feel of the camera gives it more character to me. This is the kind of camera families would have in their house to snap holiday pics, and I find that endearing. I wanted to take the Vilia (almost) back home. It just felt like the right thing to do. If you're visiting a former Soviet Union era abandoned town, untouched practically since 1986, and you happen to own a camera manufactured in Soviet Union era Belarus at roughly the same time, then you absolutely have to use it to take photos there right? So it found it's way into my hand luggage coupled with a roll of Fujicolor Superia X-Tra 400.

Not to say that I wasn't a bit nervous about shooting with it in Chernobyl, I haven't had much chance to use it much before the trip, although I knew what I was doing with it and how it worked it wasn't overly familiar to me like, say, my OM10 might be. And I had no idea what damage Ukrainian airport security might do to my film before I even got it out the airport. That, and there is always that risk with film that you might have a dodgy roll or, misjudge your exposure settings and get a whole bunch of sub-par photos, or make a silly mistake that messes up the whole roll. But I felt like it was something I should do. A kind of pilgrimage for the little BeLomo Vilia! And I'm so glad I did, here's the shots I got:

I was really happy with the shots I got. So happy. For a camera I had only used twice before (and for no other reason that I have so many bloody film cameras!) I was really pleased with how well they turned out. Fujicolor Superia X-Tra 400 is a great film and combined with the BeLomo optics the saturation and contrast looks awesome! Ok so I'm not a perfect photographer and I messed up a few shots...

But that's mostly because I'm not used to shooting with a Rangefinder. The Vilia is all manual, so I had to think about apertures and shutter speeds myself, but I know enough about what I'm doing now to get decent exposure on sunny days with ISO 400 film. Did I mention we properly lucked out with the weather? We so did. Autumnal blue skies and sunshine. Which made shooting with the Vilia so much easier. I've had my fair share of jokes directed at me at work and at home about coming back with 3 arms, or a full head of hair (hereditary baldness runs in my family...) and I think my mum was genuinely worried about me going but it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. And the worries about it being dangerous were proved unfounded: I received a background radiation dosage of 0.03 mSv during the entire time I was inside the exclusion zone. Apparently you start to get sick if you get a dose closer to 8000.00 mSv. Most people I've spoken to about the trip have all asked me the same thing: "was it really spooky / eerie?" and honestly, no. Maybe it was because the weather was so great but seeing how nature was reclaiming the landscape; tree's bursting through crumbling concrete, plants creeping up walls, grass growing where pavements used to be, was beautiful. Sure it felt a bit sad seeing the abandoned toys and standing in abandoned rooms with broken furniture, but the whole beauty of nature taking back the landscape just outshone that for us on the day we were there. I didn't have chance to catch everything I wanted to shoot and we had to be rushed around quite a bit to cram everything in to just the one 8 or 9 hour trip, but it was genuinely one of the best experiences I've ever had and special for me! Especially to see the New Safe Confinement in real life. Here's a picture of me outside of it, and you can see the little Vilia in it's case hanging from round my neck!

I told you hereditary baldness runs in the family! I shot a whole raft of digital photos. 168 to be exact. And I'm really happy with those too, I made a short video montage for Youtube and a dedicated online gallery to showcase them but for me, the sense of accomplishment and reward you get from a nice batch of film photos is a totally different feeling. It's getting more and more of a challenge for me to continue shooting film, my local lab in Birmingham's Boots branch has closed down so now all my films are going to the great and talented folks at AG Photo Lab (which is my recommended online film dev'er!) which is fine but now slightly more expensive and I have to wait on Mr. Postman, and finding film in the wild is becoming more and more rare, but I just enjoy shooting film and as long as cool places like Analogue Wonderland make it possible to keep buying film, I'm gonna keep shooting it! Need to put more rolls through my Vilia though...

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