Christopher Briscoe documents stories of devastation in wake of Russian invasion
Editor’s note: This story contains brief descriptions of war-related killings some readers will find disturbing.
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
Toys were some of the few items left intact after an explosion rocked an apartment playground in Bucha, Ukraine, where Ashland-based photographer Christopher Briscoe spent time recently capturing images of a neighborhood shortly after its devastation by the Russian Army.
“Every single window in the apartment was blown out,” Briscoe told Ashland.news in a phone interview from Kyiv, Wednesday evening. “The Russians had gone in and taken everything they could, including toilets.
“Just a few weeks ago, the Russians were there, rolling over people in their tanks,” he added, “Squishing them.”
Briscoe, an Ashland-based photographer for more than 40 years, has spent the past two months capturing the images and stories of the war-torn eastern European country that’s fighting for its survival.
The longtime photographer’s resume is long and adventurous and seems to have prepared him for his current journey. He’s captured images all over the world, including in Africa, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. Outside his comfort zone, he says, is among his favorite places to be.
While most were being evacuated or told to stay away from the scene during the Almeda Fire on Sept. 8, 2020, Briscoe was close at hand; capturing images and sharing the stories of those kneeling in the ashes of their homes.
While not abroad, Briscoe lives in Ashland, where as a graduate of Southern Oregon University, he got his initial start as a third-grade teacher at Walker Elementary. He later captured images as a photographer for the Ashland Daily Tidings, in addition to freelancing for Associated Press and The Oregonian. His images include celebrities such as Sheryl Crow and Michael Douglas, and his work spans the country from Santa Barbara to Washington, D.C., and beyond.
He plans to write a book about the stories and images he’s currently capturing, but for now, posts the stories on his social media account regularly. His past works include: “Shifting Gears: Riding the road through America’s heartland,” chronicling a cross-country bicycle trek in 1976; “The Spirit of New Orleans,” “Connections: Everyone has a story to tell,” and “The Road Between Us,” which chronicles a bicycle journey from southern California to Chicago with his son.
Humanitarian aid turned human interest stories
Since arriving with a team of doctors and medical staff at a border city in Poland nearly two months ago, Briscoe has found a new niche: war photography and storytelling.
“I was invited by a group of doctors doing some humanitarian work at the (Polish) border,” Briscoe said.
“(After a couple weeks) they went home and I couldn’t get on the plane,” he said. “I just canceled my flight. I just knew I couldn’t leave because there were too many stories to tell and pictures to take. So I’m still here, with no plans of going back.”
The stories he has collected so far from the ground are immense and, many of them, intense.
“The saddest thing was when I was at the Ukrainian Army base and I met a couple soldiers that spoke some English,” he said, “and I said, very sincerely, ‘I hope you know the whole world is behind you,’ and one guy looked at me, and he shrugged and he said, ‘Well, where are they?’”
“I’ll never forget that,” Briscoe said.
Few people Briscoe has met in Ukraine speak English, so he emphasized that interpreting has been key for him in his travels.
A free app called iTranslate has helped him along the way. But translators he’s met have not only helped him understand the language, but have helped him navigate and reach people he might not otherwise be able to without the translators’ help.
“Every once in a while I’ll just stumble on someone, like a few days ago,” Briscoe said. “I called a cab … and (the driver) lived in America in Maryland for four months.”
Briscoe ended up asking the cab driver to show him around the region for the day.
“Now I just hire him for a whole day trip,” Briscoe said, noting he pays roughly 40% less than in the U.S. for lodging and/or cab fares.
Briscoe travels on the sly, not taking images with a large camera — He swears by the iPhone 13 for quality, as well as covertness. He keeps a larger camera in a smaller bag that hangs under his arm and out of sight. As far as his safety is concerned, he generally feels safe, so far.
“The only eerie part is when the air raid sirens go off,” he said, “Sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes in the middle of the day.”
During the phone call, Briscoe paused to check if there was an air raid — There was, and after a moment, he returned to the call but with his eyes on the sky.
He has noticed, such as when he’s been in Lviv, that many Ukrainians don’t seem to react to the sirens anymore.
“People are so used to it, they just go about their business, and I’m the only one, it seems, looking at the sky,” Briscoe said.
While having breakfast in Lviv last week, Briscoe said a rocket hit near the railroad station.
“I got the picture and then I ran and grabbed my camera gear,” Briscoe said. “The whole time I’m running, I’m thinking, ‘you know, the next rocket could fall any minute.’ You just try not to think of that and you keep focused on what you need to do.”
Right now, Briscoe is in Kyiv. Before that, he was in Bucha, where he witnessed fresh graves that were just piles of dirt, and cemeteries that recently became full.
“It’s heavy,” Briscoe said, “and it’s also heavy to know it just happened a few weeks ago.”
He would go all the way to Moscow, Russia, he said, to share the stories he’s finding along the way.
In one social media post, Briscoe writes a first-hand account from his time in Bucha:
“Today, I visited the carnage that the Russians left behind in Bucha. The battle for control of the city lasted during the month of March and ended when the Ukraines finally kicked their ass a few weeks ago. Witnesses say Russian soldiers killed civilians at will as they tried to flee from town. Others said that bodies were scattered on the pavement, with some of those killed having been ‘squashed by tanks, like animal skin rugs.’ Bucha’s mayor, Anatoly Fedoruk, said that 280 bodies had been buried in mass graves in town.”
While at the Polish border, he was told by some not to cross, for fear of a $10,000 bounty on kidnapped Americans. Some in his party crossed just to get their passports stamped, but quickly returned to avoid danger. Instead of avoiding it, Briscoe decided to follow it, in hopes of capturing as many stories as possible.
“Once I crossed the border, I just kept going,” he said. “I went to Lviv and that was a three-hour train ride.”
From Lviv, he took a 10-hour train ride to Kyiv.
“And then I said, I’m going to Bucha,” he said.
He’s stayed in a monastery run by nuns and has befriended Americans and Ukrainians alike.
Stories are ‘heavy’ yet ‘heartening’
The stories he’s captured, while “heavy,” are also heartening.
He posts them and the images that accompany him on his Facebook page at least every other day, with eventual plans to compile his journey into a book.
Not every day is full of intensity for Briscoe. He gets a day here and there to read in cafes and decompress.
And everywhere he’s been, he’s met people from all walks of life. One day, it was a man from Wales named David. A cook by trade, David asked for time off work to come cook at a refugee camp for 17-hour days. All to know he was making a difference in the world.
“Some people come here to heal others and some people come to be healed,” Briscoe said.
Another man he met from Eugene, Oregon, was a retired lawyer who wanted to do something meaningful.
“He was working for World Central Kitchen,” Briscoe said, in reference to the international emergency relief food-supply effort led by famed Chef Jose Andres.
Another person he met who stuck with him is a 21-year-old emergency room nurse overseeing a hospital tent on the border of Poland. She temporarily left behind a job and her husband back home to come help make a difference.
“I met so many inspiring people like that,” Briscoe added.
He noted that the morale is really high among many Ukrainians he has met.
“The great thing about Ukraine is that they love their country and every male and female are ready to fight at a moment’s notice,” Briscoe said. “They love their country and they are going to do whatever they can to protect it.”
Looking to the days ahead, Briscoe shared plans to visit a farm owned by someone he has yet to meet. He’s taking each day in stride, and each story he’s tucking away in his heart, through his lens.
Briscoe has no immediate plans to return to the United States. He may get an apartment in Lviv for a month and use it as a home base when he’s not traveling around Ukraine.
On a day off during his time in Poland, Briscoe took a trip to Auschwitz, where he took a three-hour tour, his first time seeing the concentration camp. He said it only emphasized to him the need to share stories that would remind the world of its past, and hopefully help impact its future.
“I listen to these stories all the time, and now I’m just compelled to keep writing about them so people don’t forget,” Briscoe said. “I’m going to do everything I can so that people don’t forget.”
For Briscoe, stories are what makes him tick, and he’s finding them in Ukraine.
“I just keep going forward,” he said.