Accidentally Photographing the War In Ukraine
An Englishman in Ukraine: a photographer went in search of his roots and ended up stumbling into the opening skirmishes of a new Cold War
In February 2013, after years of visits, Chris Nunn decided to pick up his cameras and try to photograph the homeland of his grandmother—Ukraine.
Nunn, who is from England, had been hopping flights there since 2006. First with a Ukrainian girl he dated at university. Then to trace his roots. Without speaking the language, he was determined to use his cameras to find a connection to the country and its people.
He had no idea that he was about to be wrapped up in a regional conflict that would draw the world’s attention. His photography became less a personal journey and more an accidental documentary of a nation in steady decline toward war.
[Editor’s note: These photos include unpublished work made as recently as October 2014.]
Lurching Toward a Fight
“I began exploring the city of Kalush and surrounding areas, with my grandmother’s early life as a displaced person in mind,” says Nunn. “Alone and without being able to speak the language I slowly formed relationships and connections with residents during a series of trips.”
He pitched around the unremarkable neighborhoods feeling his way into Ukrainian mindset and pace of life. He looked at the every day stuff and the lives of regular people.
“I wasn’t staying in nice hotels in big cities. I was curious and honest. I was interested in the hangover from the Soviet Union,” he says.
As the crisis began to take hold, Nunn began to question the issues that led up to the tipping point.
“What was wrong? What did people want to change? What troubles have they seen in their lives? How was Ukraine broken?” he says. “I heard so many terrible stories through close Ukrainian friends, and it’s all somehow connected to what has ended up happening — from the revolution to the ongoing war.”
Nunn made the most of his anchorless state. He traveled far and wide in his attempt to map Ukraine’s desire and struggle to move away from — or sometimes revert to — Soviet forms of economy and religious practice. From Ivano-Frankivsk to Artemivsk; from Odessa to Donetsk; from Slavyansk to Kramatorsk and countless small villages between. So embedded was he in the unravelling tale, Nunn even spent time with the Ukraine army in Zaporizhia region.
“My photographs have become a naturally evolving portrait of Ukraine during rising political tensions, the peak of revolution and the descent into war,” he says.
Even before he began making photographs, Nunn felt the “cognitive dissonance” of a creaking Ukraine. It was palpable in the propaganda; in the mental conflict; and in the things unsaid.
“There are a lot of subtle references to politics and war,” he says. “It is quite confusing. It still is confusing. The internal strife in Ukraine was everywhere; always there in the background, even when we were laughing.”
Amid Ukraine’s non-stop, ideological visual culture-wars, grand statements not only seemed impossible but also futile. Instead, Nunn turned his attention to mundane and everyday moments hoping he could capture telling fragments. Perhaps these small observation would mosaic to a larger legible whole.
Into his second year on the project it was impossible to deny the inclusion of Ukraine’s military. In May 2014, Nunn got in touch with the Ukrainian Freedom Fund, a charity which raised money for the army. They put him in touch with the commander. Nunn explained he wanted to embed and won the commander’s approval.
“I had to work out the best way to travel across the increasingly hostile Donetsk region to a small town in Zaporizhia region.”
At that time, Ukrainians were preparing to go to the ballot box to elect a post-revolution president. In eastern Ukraine, Pro-Russian protests had been waged since March.
“Things were heating up,” says Nunn.
“Photographs are poor copies of real life and flawed in their nature as tools for storytelling but this is of course the beauty of photography.”
Almost without exception, the soldiers wanted to play out macho, cinematic versions of warriors.
“They wanted to present themselves on camera and play the tough soldier,” says Nunn. “Tim Hetherington talks about this the feedback loop [between image culture and reality]. I’ve seen similar things many times, even with non-soldiers — with gangsters and ex-prisoners.”
If everyone has their fifteen minutes of fame, then Nunn reckons these poor Ukrainian conscripts have had theirs.
“International attention? That came and went quickly. No one cares now,” he says. “Ukraine-fatigue.”
The Ukrainian Army unit was more than welcoming
“They were surprised that a British photographer would come to see them, especially alone,” Nunn recalls. “They were very good to me.”
Nunn learned that the soldiers were not too different from him and not too different from the Ukrainians he’d photographed a year earlier. Only now they were in uniform.
“These guys are just basic conscripts who got a letter from the government saying they had to do a 10-day army program,” says Nunn. “They ended up doing two months. Most of them are probably still there now.”
Nunn’s work has never been linear. He stands in contrast to other photographers when they stumble into a complex issues or conflict. He has embraced change and forged his work accordingly. Always, it centers on people — on friends.
“I was interested in my grandma’s history and the stories she told based on fading memories,” reflects Nunn. “When my grandmother spoke in this way she would miss parts out, she’d go backwards and forwards in time, she’d repeat things.”
Ukrainians, particularly older citizens, have experienced a specific history. Current tensions relate directly to ideological legacies, but what Nunn wants us to remember first and foremost is that the people in his photographs have far more in common with us than they have not. Regardless of how far the threads of time and recollection orbit, they ultimately revolve around shared humanity.
“This is my favourite shot. Valik was one of the first friends I met during my first two trips to Ukraine. He was very sweet. He died of a brain tumor a few months after this photo was taken. Valik gave me a necklace with a wooden cross on it, some old Russian coins, a picture of a unicorn and a incredibly fragile glass swan ornament. From then on I was obsessed with symbols and metaphors.”
Tensions in Eastern Ukraine may have vanished from Western newscycles, but they remain. In spite of the machinations of Moscow, Kiev and other political centers, everyday life continues. In between photographing riots, protests and soldiers, Nunn still focuses on the quieter moments.
Somewhere between Postmodernism and political correctness is a sweet spot for photographers. One in which they can be compassionate for their subjects but shy from making definitive statements about policy.
Nunn is holding a mirror to a region he knows better than most, but to which he is still a relative stranger.
“My photographs are just little fragments of a certain time in Ukraine,” says Nunn “Before the current crisis when I didn’t know anyone in Ukraine, to now when I have many dear friends all across Ukraine.”
If you enjoyed reading this, please click “Recommend” below.
This will help to share the story with others.