In December last year we received a zine in the post from Yorkshire-based photographer Christopher Nunn that documented a small selection of images he’d gathered in Ukraine. Kalush offered a unique perspective on a region that was thrust suddenly and violently into the public consciousness, showing us the quiet, everyday side of a place that – from television coverage at least – you’d have been forgiven for assuming was razed to the ground.
Since then he’s been back and forth between Yorkshire and Ukraine, exploring other regions of the country hit hard by civil unrest, taking more portraits of locals and just generally allowing us to better understand the country as a whole. We caught up with Chris in the middle of his latest trip to the Donetsk region to find out more about his ongoing work…
Can you tell us the story behind this series? What led you to Ukraine?
I started this work in February 2013. My grandmother, who was born in Kalush, was very ill at the time and I decided to visit her hometown. I had no idea what I would find or if I would be inspired by it at all, but I was. I decided to keep making repeated visits and I slowly got to know people and begin to understand a little bit about life in Ukraine. The process of doing this was quite difficult and time-consuming because I don’t speak Ukrainian or Russian.
My grandmother’s early life as a displaced person was what drove me initially to explore, meet people and travel around in a place that was often quite alien to me, and I was slowly starting to understand more about the country and its recent history against this backdrop of political chaos which seemed to be connected somehow to everything.
With some of the contacts I met when I first arrived in Kalush the work evolved naturally into a series of trips across Ukraine during the revolution, political crisis and ongoing war.
What was the key message you wanted to convey with the series?
I’m not trying to say “this is Ukraine” – it’s just a personal journey through parts of Ukraine at an increasingly difficult, turbulent and fragile time. I was very aware that Ukraine was going through massive changes, and a big part of this seemed to be in the way people were thinking and acting with regards to their government, their identity as a country, and their history.
Even though I witnessed and photographed a certain amount of action and chaos, I wanted to focus on the quieter moments that hinted at the political turmoil within Ukraine in a more subtle way.
Which is the image that resonates most for you?
I’m always drawn to the image of the woman holding the dog with the patch of yellow fur. I think in a strange way it reminds me of the images of snipers dressed in black with yellow armbands that were constantly on the news at the time.
What was your most memorable experience while shooting?
During my time in Ukraine I photographed riots and protests, the funeral of an activist shot by a sniper at Maidan when his body returned to his hometown of Kalush and civilian casualties who were killed by shrapnel in Donetsk.
I was in Donetsk in March, at the beginning of what became known as theRussian Spring. I was in the administration building the first time it was stormed by pro-Russian protestors, before it became the headquarters of the Donetsk People’s Republic. I also spent time with the Ukrainian army which was a very memorable experience.
The most memorable times though were probably just hanging out with regular Ukrainians away from the chaos and getting to know and understand them.
What draws you to this kind of documentary photography?
Well I wouldn’t say my work is strictly documentary photography, but I’m interested in real life and the human condition. I’m curious, I want to learn more and understand more. I’m fascinated with photography as a tool to do this because of its limitations with regards to storytelling. It’s just little fragments of time.
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