Every day, Canon Ambassador Maciek Nabrdalik went to the same coffee shop on the edge of Chernobyl's exclusion zone. The Polish documentary photographer, also a trained barista, had shown the owner how to get a better brew out of her worn-out old coffee machine. Standing outside the shop one morning – camera over his shoulder, coffee cup in hand – he got talking to a local gravedigger.
Seeing Maciek’s camera, the gravedigger wanted to know why he wasn't snapping away like all the other tourists; people who come by the busload to photograph the site of one of the world's worst nuclear disasters. These tourists, the gravedigger said, treated the place like a safari park and the locals like dying animals. Maciek told the gravedigger he was a photographer, not a tourist, and it wasn't his style to take pictures of people without their permission.
Maciek had seen the sort of pictures the gravedigger was talking about. He'd watched documentaries about the explosion at the fourth reactor that blew the roof off the nuclear power plant and released 400 times more radiation than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. He knew that the disaster forced thousands of people to flee their homes in April 1986, that the surrounding area became known as the exclusion zone, and that to this day it remains one of the most radioactive places on Earth.
The gravedigger invited Maciek to join him at a funeral the next day. For Maciek, this was the start of a relationship with Chernobyl and its people that would last more than a decade, and a project that would help him overcome a very personal fear.
Maciek was six years old when the Chernobyl disaster happened. His mother and grandmother were terrified of the radiation that spread to large parts of Europe. He was the only kid in his kindergarten class not allowed to drink milk because his mother feared it was contaminated.
"This fear of invisible danger," Maciek says, "was with me through most of my young and adult life. When I got the chance to visit Chernobyl, and confront the danger, I didn't hesitate. I went there to try to understand what I was afraid of."
Growing up, Maciek was always into photography, but at university he studied computer science instead. He went to the US on an exchange programme and worked at a swimming pool in New Jersey. His British supervisor there, Jack Wright, was a former magazine editor, so Maciek showed him his work. When Jack received a commission from a British newspaper to write a story about New York after 9/11, he gave Maciek his first break by getting him commissioned to take the photographs for the piece – even though Maciek didn't have a camera. "Jack said he would do it but only with a photographer he'd been working with for a while. He told [the newspaper] my digital camera was broken on another assignment, which was a complete lie. I'd never worked on any assignments in my life."
Back in Poland, Maciek got a job on a daily newspaper. After a couple of years, he won an award for a picture of the former prime minister being driven away in a limousine after losing an election in 2005. It brought him "a chunk of money", which he invested wisely – in a workshop with VII photo agency.
After the workshop, he quit the newspaper to become a freelancer – "free," he says, being operative word – and focus on projects that meant something to him. He photographed the 2nd Polish Miss Trans Beauty Contest and later published a book on LGBTQ communities in Poland. He documented the lives of young Portuguese people migrating to other countries. And in 2013, his first book, The Irreversible, collected pictures and stories from holocaust survivors around the world. Maciek established himself as one of the world's leading documentary photographers. Based in Warsaw, he is now also a full member of VII.
Maciek has so far visited Chernobyl 14 times. He would pitch small stories to magazines, especially around anniversaries of the disaster, but he used his own money to fund these trips. He followed the barbed wire fence around the exclusion zone to the various towns and villages. People on one side of the fence were designated victims, people on the other side were not, so they didn't receive the same compensation. The disaster was sociological as much as nuclear; the power plant was the area's primary employer. It left most of the male population, on both sides of the fence, without jobs and purpose.
Maciek lets the people and the situation lead him. He never stages pictures or reshoots them. "I hang with people. I let the life go on. I'm not worried if nothing happens one day because I know the second day will be something very interesting."
Residents in the villages surrounding the plant are each given a day each year to return to the exclusion zone. They use the trip to tend the graves of dead relatives and to visit the ruins they call home. Maciek went along on some of these days, when people would take him inside derelict buildings and fill the empty rooms with their memories. They talked about the beautiful gardens, the fruit they grew, the cattle they raised. "They would describe them so vividly that I would really see the best apples on earth, the sweetest plums, the beautiful cows they had. All these things they were missing."
Maciek often uses cameras from Canon's 5D series – currently the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV – with three lenses: a Canon EF 28mm f/2.8 IS USM, a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4 USM, and a Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM. He likes these lenses because they're small, durable, and versatile. He also recently tested the Canon EOS R, Canon's first full-frame mirrorless camera, with a Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro STM lens. Several features suited his fly-on-the-wall style; particularly the eye-detecting autofocus, where a simple touch of the screen on a person's eye makes the focus follow their eyes. Since Maciek’s shoot, firmware updates have extended eye-detection AF to support Servo AF.
He doesn't use artificial lighting and always shoots in manual, adjusting his settings while walking the streets. He prefers to shoot in Live View mode, which allows him to view the frame in real time on the camera’s LCD screen. A tall man, even when photographing people of average height he has to bend and twist to avoid emptiness at the top of the frame. In Live View, however, he can shoot more comfortably, holding the camera at chest or chin height. The Canon EOS R's vari-angle touchscreen moves vertically and horizontally so he can view the screen easily in whatever position he's in.
Live View benefits his photography in other ways, too. He finds it slows him down, making his work more precise. He can see composition more clearly on-screen than through a viewfinder so he crops a lot less in post-production. Using Live View also tends to make his subjects more relaxed. He compares shooting through the viewfinder to pointing a gun at a person: they freeze. Silent shooting also helps with the intimacy he's looking for.
"Using the screen is similar to how people photograph with their phones. People are comfortable with that. If they can see your eyes, they're much calmer. It's less confrontational. Because they can see my eyes, they can see my intentions.
"It also has one feature I always hoped to have one day: a completely silent shutter. The sound of the shutter often changes the intimacy of the situation. Silent shooting helps them get used to me and become more comfortable."
In 2016, Maciek published Homesick, a book about his trips to Chernobyl. The title refers to the homesickness felt by the people who fled their homes, but also to the sickness the radiation surrounding their homes has caused. Fittingly enough, Maciek found himself missing the place. So after he'd published the book, he went back – twice.
"I'm definitely not afraid of radiation now. I understand it much better. I know how to walk around the exclusion zone, how to be safe. I realised that it's not being in the place that helped me tame this fear, but the people who live there."