Briscoe: ‘I have one foot on the plane’

November 13, 2022

Ashland photographer Christopher Briscoe to release book on his time in war-torn Ukraine

By Paul R. Huard for Ashland.news

For Ashland photographer Christopher Briscoe, the war in Ukraine is more than a news story occurring on the other side of the planet.

There are people in Ukraine who are his friends, not strangers. It is a country that he grew to love.

It is also a place he will return to as soon as he can.

“With the news I hear every day, I have one foot on the plane,” said Briscoe, 71, during a recent interview with Ashland.news.

After establishing his Ashland studio in 1985, Briscoe built a career photographing celebrities and politicians, corporate business leaders and jazz musicians. But he never forgot his roots as a photojournalist who once freelanced for newspapers in the Pacific Northwest and a photographer who captured images of ordinary people.

Since he returned to the United States from Ukraine on July 1, Briscoe has taken stock of his 95-day experience of interviewing and photographing the people and events in the war-torn country. He summed up his experiences by writing a book called “The Child On The Train and Other Stories In War-Torn Ukraine,” a collection of his photos and essays that will eventually be published both digitally and in a 10-inch by 8-inch printed volume.

Christopher Briscoe took this photo of himself in Ukraine in protective gear he wore when near the front lines. Christopher Briscoe photo

In the meantime, he is also spending time physically recuperating. The weight of the body armor that he needed to wear near the front lines aggravated old back injuries.

Briscoe said he is scheduled for surgery Nov. 16, but he hopes to heal quickly “because I’ve got to get back to Ukraine.”

On Feb. 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, setting off the largest armed conflict in Europe since World War II. It was the latest and most brutal escalation of a war between the two nations that dates to 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula by force and invaded portions of eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine has mounted stiff resistance despite being vastly outnumbered by the Russian Army, but ruthless bombing and shelling have pummeled Ukrainian cities. Civilian casualties have grown by the day, and the fighting has sparked an enormous refugee crisis. More than 14 million people have lost their homes, been displaced by the war, or left the nation altogether.

Briscoe originally travelled to Poland in March to photograph medical personnel aiding refugees on the border during a 10-day humanitarian mission. When the doctors went home, he crossed the border into Ukraine, spending time in the cities of Lviv and Kyiv and near battlefields in the eastern part of the nation, among other places.

His motivations for going were part of what Briscoe called the main theme of his life: leaving the comfortable behind and taking the risks necessary to get that one-in-a-million photograph.

“It’s about getting out of your comfort zone,” Briscoe said. “It’s why most people are inhibited about taking pictures. You have to approach a human being on one level — you have to get the picture. But you have to gain their trust in a couple of seconds. I look on it as a challenge, just like getting on the plane and going to Przemsyl (Poland): I didn’t know what I would land in. You know you need to get the picture, but you also know that you need to be respectful.”

While in Lviv, which is in western Ukraine about 70 miles from the border with Poland, he fell in love with the city and its inhabitants, developing a deep respect for their willingness to fight for their nation. His love of Ukraine and admiration of its people prompted his decision to write his book.

“This is exactly where I want to be, and it is exactly what I should be doing,” he said. “I never got tired of the city, I never got tired of the view, and I never got tired of the people. They are all in this struggle, and they are all in it together. Everything is focused on the war effort.”

Images have changed the course of wars through history, Briscoe said. That is part of the power of a photograph.

“People, when they read, just skim,” Briscoe said. “But with a picture, they can’t ‘un-read’ it, they can’t skim a picture.”

“You could smell the grief,” said Christopher Briscoe when describing the anguish and sadness of survivors in war-torn Ukraine. Christopher Briscoe photo

The power of the people in the photographs, which captured individuals at raw moments such as a funeral for fallen Ukrainian soldiers that he photographed with their family’s permission, touched him profoundly.

“I think about the heartbreak that I saw, that I smelled, that I heard, and how it really encompassed all the men and women who died,” Briscoe said. “You look at these people, the refugees — but they don’t look like refugees. They look like anyone from the Rogue Valley. They have Samsonite luggage.”

When it comes to the future of his book, he hopes that he can present a copy to Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, and Andriy Sadovyi, the current mayor of Lviv.

“(Zelensky) has called on photographers and journalists to tell the story of what is going on in Ukraine,” Briscoe said. “I want to show him the work I have done.”

If anyone doubts the importance of the war in Ukraine or questions why Americans should care about events there, Briscoe gave a direct answer.

“This is the biggest geopolitical event since World War II,” he said. “It is the border of the next war. World War III could easily start there.”

Age also prompts a certain amount of urgency regarding his project.

“One of the good things about being older is that you know that you are on the thin end of the branch,” Briscoe said. “You know that you need to get your book out.”

However, in the end his book is based on one simple idea.

“Human beings are fascinating,” Briscoe said. “Everyone has a story.”

Email freelance reporter Paul R. Huard at paulrhuard@gmail.com.

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