Bradford's Impressions Gallery exhibition on Ukraine - the forgotten war and the people caught up in it

Six years ago Christopher Nunn started out on a journey that would have a profound effect on his life and work.

Dasha and Alexandra, students, Druzhkivka, October 2014.
Dasha and Alexandra, students, Druzhkivka, October 2014.

Travelling to Kalush, Ukraine in 2013 to try and find out more about his family history – his grandmother had arrived in the UK as a displaced person just after the Second World War, settling in West Yorkshire – the Huddersfield-based photographer was still in the country when the anti-government Euromaidan protests began in Kiev.

Over the next five years Nunn made frequent visits to Ukraine, witnessing the 2014 revolution, the ensuing political chaos and the ongoing fighting in Europe’s forgotten war, taking photographs throughout. The striking images he made during that period have just gone on display at Bradford’s Impressions Gallery in his first major solo show – Borderland: Stories from Donbas.

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Why painting in the Dales is even better than working for The Beatles for Dudley Edwards“After the revolution I kind of hung around and that’s what I have been doing,” he says. “I carried on trying to understand some of the things that were going on in Ukraine from my point of view which was perhaps a little bit different from the media’s perspective. I wasn’t there on any assignment, it was much more personal.”

Lena, nurse, Vodyanske, October 2014

In western Ukraine he tracked down some relatives on his grandmother’s side and discovered that she had brothers who had ended up in Siberia. “The family connection was just a starting point really,” he says. “I wasn’t making an in-depth investigation, I just wanted to see the country and observe.”

He continued to visit, travelling back and forth from the UK, spending a couple of months at a time in Ukraine and returning home to fulfill commissions.

From Renaissance-inspired paintings to murals in Leeds - the work of artist Graeme Willson is celebrated in IlkleyHis process, and intent, was different to that of other Western observers. “A lot of photographers and journalists covered those stories which is great, but they would arrive and then leave,” he says. “Because I was living there with the Ukrainians, I wasn’t travelling from hotspot to hotspot, there was some stuff I could get a lot closer to. It’s all about trust and you have to respect where you are, you are a guest. It is about giving control to the person you are photographing, you don’t want them to feel threatened.”

The resulting photographs, focussing on the Donbas region on the far eastern edge of Ukraine and the site of Europe’s only active war zone, are incredibly powerful and moving. The 54 images on display in the gallery, selected from over 3,000, capture moments of peace, connection, relaxation, depicting family gatherings, picnics, village bars, fishing trips, cramped apartments, the minutiae of everyday life. The pictures emphasise the humanity that persists even in areas of violent conflict and highlight the ‘ordinariness’ of living through a war, although the caption to one image of two women in a kitchen starkly informs the viewer: ‘Later that day Elena was killed by shelling in this kitchen.’

Danylevskoho Street, Donetsk, May 2014

Award-winning photographer Mandy Barker brings her work to Bradford’s Impressions Gallery“I think more than anything else I wanted to show something that people could identity with in some way,” says Nunn. “A lot of it is very normal. I could have visited military sites but nobody really understands that. It’s really difficult to understand anything about war. With pictures that are more domestic and quiet maybe people will think more about this story. It’s bringing attention to that in a way that I felt I could do.”

At Impressions Gallery, to January 4. Christopher Nunn will be giving a talk on October 26.