Interview – Christopher Nunn

chris nunn
Jewish Cemetery, Kalush, February 2014

Christopher Nunn is a British documentary photography who since early 2013 has been photographing regularly in Ukraine. This period has coincided with popular protests in Kiev leading to the overthrow of the pro-Moscow government, the Russian military annexation of the Crimean peninsula, and hostilities in the east of the country between the Ukranian army and armed separatist groups. For me what marks Nunn apart from many of the photographers making work about Ukraine is that his focus is invariably away from the front-lines, looking instead at the everyday lives of people living (sometimes very distantly) with the country’s unrest. As a result Nunn’s photographs seem to reveal much more about how Ukraine has got where it is, and where it might be going, than many of the projects which linger on the spectacular events effecting the country. We recently had a short chat about the background to his work and some of his motivations and interests in making it.

To start off, I think you’re based in Huddersfield in Yorkshire, something of a far cry from Ukraine. Could you explain how you came to be photographing there?

I’d been interested in Ukraine for a while. I first went there in 2006, and then again in 2007 after travelling across Russia. I also went back for a short trip in 2010. All these trips were with my girlfriend at the time, who had a Ukrainian granddad. My grandmother was born in Kalush, which was part of Poland then, but left when she was around 15 years old. When I decided to travel back to Ukraine at the end of 2012 my grandma was very ill from a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, and I was getting more interested in her history which we actually knew very little about. It was also quite a difficult time for me because I’d just come out of a 6 year relationship and I felt like I needed to do something. Looking back I guess I was learning how to be on my own again, so starting off in Ukraine alone seemed to make sense. I had no idea what I would find in Kalush, but after walking around for a while I realised that I actually ‘felt’ something for this place, and that was important for me, and that’s why I continued to make work there.

It’s sad but seems a little fitting that your grandmothers struggle with Alzheimer’s would lead you back to Ukraine. My brief experience of the country was of one with an awkward relationship with it’s own past. It felt to me as if there was uncertainty in many places about which parts of the past to celebrate, and which to turn away from. I see hints of this in some of your photographs from Kalush, but I wonder if you noticed or thought about this much yourself?

Absolutely, and this is something that I thought about more over time. For a start, my grandmother’s ethnic status was always in dispute. She said she was Polish, but her childhood friend who came from the same village and left for England at the same time swore she was Ukrainian. She never seemed sure about whether she missed her ‘motherland’ and had fond memories of it, or whether she hated it. She changed her mind all the time, and seemed to struggle with her own past. This is something I found interesting, and I’ve always been fascinated with memory anyway. This is something I was thinking about, especially early on.

With regards to Ukraine’s awkward relationship with it’s own past, manifestations of this became more apparent as the crisis escalated. I was in the east and west at various times, so I saw protests for closer integration with the EU, and the opposite in the east, with a rejection of this and calls for unity with Russia. These ideas about the future of Ukraine say a lot of people’s opinions about its history I think.

There are different heroes of history in different parts of Ukraine, Bandera and Lenin being a few of the obvious ones in light of recent events. An example of this would be something I saw recently in Slavyansk, which was the epicentre of the insurgency at one point, and is now under the control of the Ukrainian army. The big Lenin statue in the main square now has a yellow and blue scarf around his neck. There are many notes, pictures, political messages and poems on the pedestal, written after the liberation of Slavyansk. Someone had written “You cannot destroy Lenin. It is our history” and underneath it, written by someone else “Lenin is our tragedy.”  I’m very interested in this conflict of beliefs and ideas, which are all related to people’s perception of the current situation in Ukraine, as well as their understanding of it’s history.

You mention the crisis in Ukraine. This manifested initially and perhaps most visibly in the protests around the Maidan or independence square in Kiev. It’s interesting to me that while so many photographers flew in just to focus on events in the Maidan, you were already there in the country and yet chose to stay away from Kiev. Was there any particular reason for this?

Well I was actually in Kalush in November 2013 when Yanukovych refused to sign the association agreement with the EU, which is what kick-started the Euromaidan movement.  A lot of people were talking about this at that time. I returned to Ukraine in January 2014, first to Donetsk and then to Kalush. I had no plans to cover anything political really, but by the time I arrived in Kalush in February I could see that the growing political tensions were beginning to manifest themselves there. There were small barricades in front of the police headquarters to stop more riot police going to Maidan, and local people were guarding them around the clock.

I spent some time with them, and one night got talking to a young man who was probably the first person I’d met in Kalush who could speak English. He worked in the local UDAR office (Vitally Klitschko’s political party) and we talked about politics and what was happening in Kyiv. By this time I really wanted to go to Maidan, but it was being so heavily covered and there were so many photographers and all the big agencies already there that I decided to stay.

I’d always been interested in small stories that are part of a bigger picture, and because I’d already been making work in Kalush for a year and had a personal connection to it, thought it made more sense to stay there. At the end of February I went back to Donetsk when the so called ‘Russia Spring’ (the east’s rejection of the Euromaidan movement) was starting to happen, and there were a lot of protests and government buildings being stormed by protestors.

You’ve remained photographing in Ukraine as events in the east have unfolded (that again seems to make you something of a rarity as so many others left once the dramatic events in the Maidan ended). You’ve since photographed Ukrainian army conscripts and the lives of ordinary people in the east, amongst other things. I can see your strategy of focusing on smaller parts of the bigger pictures makes sense as a way to respond to the vastness of this conflict, but how do you decide which parts are important?

Well since I’d already been photographing in Ukraine for almost a year before Euromaidan it was just natural to continue after the events in Kyiv came to an end and the crisis deepened across the county. With regards to focusing on smaller stories, most of it came naturally just from being there and exploring. It’s not so much about me deciding what’s important as such, but more often than not it’s moments that are not directly related to the conflict that seem to stick. My path naturally developed into trips between east and west at various important points along the timeline of events and during a period of massive transformation, so in some ways the work is a reflection of that time. I spent time with a huge mix of people, from patriots in the west, to ethnic Russians and supporters of DNR in the east, as well as pro-Ukrainians in Donetsk region. I met people who love Ukraine and hate Ukraine, or who don’t care either way. I began to understand how complicated the situation was, and I felt it was different to what was in the news or on social media.

I was seeing hints of war and political tension everywhere, often in very mundane ways, and it directly touched a lot of the people who I knew before the crisis began.  My photos are a response to everything I was seeing, thinking about and doing at the time. From the start, I felt like I was experiencing all these little glimpses of people’s lives and situations that were connected somehow to Ukraine’s recent history and current state. During later trips I worked with journalists and visited destroyed towns and soldiers in battalions and things like that, but it’s the situations and meetings that happen naturally, when I work alone, that are most important to me.

As final questions go it’s rather an obvious one but what’s next? Do you see these different stories ultimately coming together as one body of work at some point in the future or will they remain as separate fragments of the current state of Ukraine?

I’ll keep doing what I’m doing until I feel satisfied. I think there will be one main piece of work made during the last few years, and continuing for the next year or so, and maybe a few smaller projects. Perhaps they will be separate chapters that branch off from the main body of work. I have a few ideas that I am trying to arrange.

See more of Chris’s work on his website.