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Ashland photographer Christopher Briscoe documents tragedy and hope in Ukraine

 Julia and her mom Ksenia who evacuated their village in Ukraine during the war.
Christopher Briscoe
Julia and her mom Ksenia, whose last names are not being used for their safety. They evacuated their home outside Lviv, Ukraine during the war.

Renowned Ashland-based photographer Christopher Briscoe is known for his stylistic portraits. Now, he’s in Ukraine, capturing the stories of people fleeing the war and talking to those who have come to help. JPR’s Erik Neumann spoke to Briscoe, in Poland at the time, about what he’s discovered while documenting this tragedy.

Erik Neumann: Are there any particular interactions that stand out to you from people that you've spoken with that you can recall?

Christopher Briscoe: So many. I talked to a sweet little girl the other day with her mom. She's 12 years old. Her name is Julia. Somehow Julia knew that the bombs were going to come. A lot of people in her town, just outside of Lviv, were in denial saying ‘No, it'll never happen.’ And so, when the bombs started falling, little Julia was in the basement with her mom and they planned their escape, jumped in the car.

The hands of a Ukranian surgeon named Serhii
Christopher Briscoe
The hands of Ukranian surgeon Serhii Danyikiv.

At times the line of the cars, they told me, was more than 30 km long. This is in the middle of the night in the snow. They couldn't have their headlights on because of they were afraid of being targets. Then the line of people on the side of the road got longer and longer in the snow. Then people ran out of gas. Then more people join this long line and now they're all towing their suitcases and carrying their kids, because they're too fatigued to walk anymore, and their pets and then they can't carry that, so they let go of all their suitcases. And now the roadside is littered with open suitcases and clothes blowing in the snow. It just got worse and worse and worse. Now this mother and daughter have been taken in by a local family and they're comfortable, but all they talk about is going home.

I asked Julia, ‘When you were rushing out of your room, what's the one thing that you wanted to take, but couldn't bring with you?’ And she looked at me and she said, ‘My pet snails. I had about 30 of them in this jar, and there were a couple of generations. And my mom said there's no room in the car for your pet snails.’ So, it just gives you a perspective of what’s normal to people. That normal gets thrown out the window in the sound of a bomb.

EN: From hearing your stories, you've obviously taken photos in other parts of the world. I'm curious how this, shooting photos in or adjacent to an actual conflict zone, is different.

Marta and her son Dmytro
Christopher Briscoe
Marta and her son Dmytro, whose last names are not being used for their safety.

CB: I cry more. The people around me cry more. I rode shotgun the other day in a van with a priest coming down from the mountains, bringing all these refugees. This poor priest was so exhausted, he told me that he couldn't sleep at night and that when he prayed, he just wept. He said his whole existence has been turned upside down by this war. I said, ‘Has this shaken your faith or strengthened it?’ And that, that he lit up and he said ‘It's strengthened it.’

Some of the most inspirational stories is [when] I just walk up to people – there are volunteers here from around the world. I was at another distribution place of medical supplies where all these volunteers come from all over. A cook was there, stirring a pot of soup. I asked him, ‘What's your story? Where you from?’ He said, ‘I'm from Wales. A couple weeks ago I asked my boss for some time off. I felt that I just need you to do something. So, I jumped in my car drove all the way here, and now I'm cooking sometimes 15 to 17 hours a day for this crew of volunteers who takes medical supplies across the border into some really dangerous places.’ So, I looked at this guy, the cook, and I said, ‘When you get back home after this is all over and you're back home. What's the one thing, the one takeaway that you're not going to ever forget?’ And he stirs his soup and he looks up at me and he says ‘That I'm a good person.’ I didn't expect that. People come here from around the world to heal and I guess to be healed. Those are some inspirational stories.

EN: Chris, I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with me today and I really hope you stay safe.

CB: Thank you.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.
After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the west coast.