Space as a witness: The war rooms of Ukraine

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Travelling to Ukraine in autumn last year, Christopher Nunn photographed the abandoned homes, schools and buildings traumatised by the Russian war

Between August and October last year, Christopher Nunn travelled around Kyiv and Kharkiv to make a documentary. It was an important moment in the war’s trajectory: the Ukrainian Armed Forces had begun launching their counteroffensive against Russia, first in Kherson in the south, then Kharkiv in the east, which liberated over 600 settlements. While reclaiming the territories represented a strategic victory, it also laid bare the true atrocities of the Russian occupation.

Nunn has a longstanding personal relationship with Ukraine, having worked in the country for over a decade. His small team moved through the liberated towns and cities, alone except when guided by volunteers or the Ukrainian military. Nunn always had a camera in hand. He photographed the spaces they encountered; homes, schools, offices and other private spaces, resulting in his War Rooms series. He photographed these carefully selected rooms “in a forensic way,” he explains, usually from the entrance or an open doorway. Nothing was ever touched. 

Damaged school, Leb'yazhe, Kharkiv region from the series Warrooms © Chris Nunn.
Occupied private house, Verbivka, Kharkiv region, Warrooms © Christopher Nunn.
Borodianka , Kyiv Region from the series Warrooms © Chris Nunn.
Occupied private house, Verbivka, Kharkiv region from the series Warrooms © Chris Nunn.

Many of Nunn’s previous projects in the region have relied heavily on portraiture. In War Rooms, no people appear, yet the spaces are charged with their presence. Some homes were abandoned right at the start of the invasion in February 2022. You can just make out the remnants of Christmas and New Year’s decorations that were never packed away (in Ukraine, Christmas is celebrated in January). There is crockery on the table, plants left to dry, books cascading off the shelves, children’s paintings lost in the rubble. Everything is ripped, broken and smashed – rumbled by months of air strikes and incoming missile fire. 

Some of these same rooms were later occupied by Russian forces, who used them for hideouts or barracks. Chairs and other furniture can be seen stacked against doors and windows in makeshift barricades. Some of Nunn’s pictures were taken in Izium (Kharkiv Oblast) – a town often featured on the news due to its strategic position – soon after it was liberated. After six months of occupation, a mass grave of more than 450 people, mainly civilians, was discovered in a nearby forest. Many of the victims, buried in shallow graves bearing simple wooden crosses, showed signs of torture, rape, genital mutilation and injuries from shelling. 

Abandoned and looted private house, Izium, Kharkiv region from the series Warrooms © Chris Nunn.
Barricaded theatre after Russian Occupation, Kutuzivka, Kharkiv region from the series Warrooms © Chris Nunn.

What have these four walls witnessed? Fear and trauma have seeped into what remains of the bricks and mortar, disrupting the pace and predictability of everyday life. “These stories are about the loss of life in completely normal situations,” Nunn explains. “How the Ukrainians’ lives have been destroyed.” Each individual image is harrowing, but seeing them in series pronounces the scale of the devastation.

Many of the buildings in War Rooms are so damaged that they will soon be demolished. But some will remain, standing as monuments to what has come to pass in these cities. Cracks and bullet holes holding space for historical memory. These territories have been reclaimed, but the war still rages 12 months on. More cities and buildings are bombed everyday; more homes destroyed. “Almost everyone I know [from Ukraine] is displaced now,” Nunn says. The stories of Ukrainian war rooms are far from over. 

Izabela Radwanska Zhang

Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Editorial Director of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.