Christopher Briscoe: ‘I like to go deep; I’m going back to go deeper’
By Jim Flint
Ashland-based photographer Christopher Briscoe is not famous for landscapes or still life photography. He’s not known for sports or architectural photography.
A student of the human condition, his specialty is people, for which his interpersonal skills, attention to detail, and a mastery of light and composition give him an edge. The subjects of his portraiture have ranged from the ordinary to the extraordinary, from the poor to the rich and famous.
Add war coverage to his résumé.
Briscoe recently returned from spending three months in Ukraine. Rather than focus on conflict and violence there, he turned his lens toward the people, chronicling the lives of civilians who find themselves in harm’s way, and those who step up to fight for their country in any way they can.
The images he brought back are moving and inspirational. They tell stories of suffering, courage and resilience. Stories of sadness, despair and hope.
At times he found himself in harm’s way. He was constantly reminded of the threat of Russian missiles by the seemingly endless wailing of air-raid sirens. An app he secured for his phone went off when missiles were launched. It still goes off in Ashland.
How did Briscoe end up in Ukraine? It was a circuitous route over the span of several years that included visits to Cambodia, India and Africa.
“I wanted to expand my horizons,” he said.
The first trip was to Asia.
“I had an opportunity to go to Cambodia where I shot for my first book, ‘Common Ground.’”
The book tells the story of his journey through Cambodia’s jungles, the Killing Fields, and Bangkok, Thailand. He captured images of the people and places of the region while recognizing the work of Project Enlighten, a nonprofit organization that aids communities impacted by poverty and war.
Other trips took him to India and Africa, documenting the charitable work of cataract surgeons in poverty-stricken areas.
“I was in Ethiopia three years ago,” he said. “I watched people who had been completely blind dance with joy, shouting ‘I can see!’ when the bandages came off.”
And then, last spring, three weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, he was invited to join a group of medical professionals going to Poland on a humanitarian mission to help refugees.
“My role was to document their work and the chaotic crossing at the Medyka border station, where thousands of families fled,” he said.
At one point, he was struck by the sight of many Ukrainians pulling their suitcases in the opposite direction, back into Ukraine. They wanted their land, their houses and their old lives back, so they were going home, even if it meant they might have to leave again.
At the end of March, when the medical team disbanded to return to their homes and practices, Briscoe canceled his plane ticket back.
He told a friend, “How can I leave with so many heartbreaking and inspiring stories yet to be told?”
He crossed the border, despite being warned about $10,000 bounties offered for Americans, and never looked back.
“I had to get out of my comfort zone,” he said.
He downsized, taking only his small Sony 6400 and 6500 he carried in a sling bag, and an iPhone 13. He wanted to be as unobtrusive as possible.
His first stop was Lviv. The city is known for its cobblestone streets and beautiful, highly decorated architecture with Renaissance facades.
“Think Paris and Florence,” he said. “But take out the tourists, get rid of the trash, cut costs 35%, and you have Lviv.”
He found a translator who could interpret for him. The 32-year-old woman helped him map out an itinerary and guided him to people who had stories to share.
For nearly three months, he traveled through the battle-scarred country. He often took circuitous routes, using the country’s rail system and finding rides with supply delivery vans, threading his way through checkpoints.
After leaving Lviv to begin his journey through Ukraine, he spent time in Bila Tserkva, Kyiv and Bucha. He made his way into Dnipro, Ukraine’s fourth-largest city in the eastern part of the country, and then to the eastern battlefronts.
“I hitched a ride on a van taking supplies to the front line,” he said. “I wore a loaned bullet-proof vest when I was there with the soldiers.”
With cameras and pen, he documented dozens of stories during his travels. Some of the stories can still bring him to tears when he recounts them.
“I went to a funeral for three soldiers, held at a beautiful church,” he remembers. “Other soldiers stood at attention during the service. They looked like they were about 18 years old. You could tell by the looks on their faces they knew they could be next.”
After the funeral, he joined mourners on a bus headed for the graveyard.
“I sat next to a 20-something daughter of one of the fallen soldiers. I could smell her grief. I couldn’t help myself: I embraced her, crying, ‘So sorry.’ And she cried.”
After the graveyard services, he asked the interpreter to inquire if he could meet with some of the bereaved in a week or so. They said yes.
With the interpreter tagging along, Briscoe later met a group of the survivors at an outdoor café in Lviv. Among them was the young woman he had met on the bus. She remembered the embrace.
At the cemetery, Briscoe had watched the wife of one of the fallen soldiers stand at the foot of her husband’s fresh grave, pouring out her feelings, promising to be the best mother in the world, promising to live for their children.
At the café gathering, he learned that the woman’s husband also had served in the Crimean war. When the Russians invaded in February, he reenlisted.
Briscoe had been touched by what she said at the graveyard. “I suggested she could write a letter to her husband for my book,” he said.
In one city, he took a class on how to make Molotov cocktails from young men he guessed were about 19 years old.
“They had made 4,000 cocktails and shipped them to the front,” Briscoe said. They weren’t just kids from the street. “One of them was a second-year law student,” he said.
He tells another story about a young soldier defending the steel mill near Mariupol where there was heavy fighting. Briscoe met the soldier’s mother when he talked with some people in an apartment building. The woman kept in touch with her son by text.
“For Mother’s Day, he texted a floral shop to deliver flowers to her,” Briscoe said. “And on Mother’s Day, he texted, ‘I love you.’ He was killed on Mother’s Day. Two days later she got the flowers.”
During the conversations, glancing around, Briscoe noticed a vase with the bouquet of old, wilted flowers. “She’s still texting her son.”
Briscoe brought back dozens of stories from the war-torn country. Stories of loss, fear, and courage. But also of isolated fun and laughter, like the time he played with children at refugee centers, or when he rode horseback into a thick central Ukrainian forest with an inspiring horse trainer.
There were times for reflection, too. On his first visit to an army camp, he proudly told an English-speaking Ukrainian solder that the entire world is behind them.
“He looked at me, shrugged, and answered, ‘Well, where are they?’ I still feel as embarrassed now as I was then, standing next to him in the mud.”
Those stories and hundreds of poignant, striking photographs he took form the bases of a new book about his experiences, “The Child on the Train,” to be published in the near future.
When he returned home, he said there was quite an adjustment to make.
“It was really hard to settle back in,” he said. “The first two weeks I was back in La Jolla (where he owns a second residence), I spent more time in bed than out. Both a doctor and a shrink said I had PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).”
He noticed his fuse is shorter now, and so is his attention span.
“It rewires you. I’ve told that funeral story 60 times, and I always cry. We take a lot of stuff for granted. But I learned things can change in an instant.”
What’s next for Briscoe?
“I’m going back in October,” he said, “for as long as they’ll let me. Probably for another three months.”
Why go back?
“I don’t think I’m an adrenaline junkie,” he said. “I always want to get the shot, but there’s no big rush. I like to go deep. So, I’m going back to go deeper.”
Long ago, when the Berlin Wall fell, he wanted to go there. “But I didn’t and still regret it,” he said.
“When I was in Ukraine, I was overwhelmed with the realization that I was there to do exactly what I was meant to do.”
If he’s lucky, he’ll witness the end of hostilities when he’s there the second time.
Reach writer Jim Flint at email@example.com.