The horrors of war are impossible to communicate. Yet knowing this has freed photographer Lisa Bukreyeva because she knows that nothing that she does will be enough. She has lived in Kyiv (Ukraine) her entire life, and her work over the past several years has captured the city’s textures, experience and people with a unique sensitivity and precision. Although she wouldn’t sell herself as a documentary or street photographer, her work is candid and draws unexpected connections everywhere she aims her lens.
Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, Bukreyeva has been living in her mother’s house. The war has changed what common things mean: her mother’s basement is now a rocket shelter. When she fled her apartment, she only took with her identification cards, her dogs and some photography equipment. She says that on the third day of sheltering in the basement, she realised that the periodicity of her days had dissolved into one long, continuous moment. So, she began to keep a journal. Her series 2402. War Diary. provides a haunting roadmap of the war’s course, tying together both image and writing.

For much of the world, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seemingly came as a surprise. Foreign news outlets and politicians portrayed Russia’s belligerence as mere theatre. They were wrong. For her series Magma, Bukreyeva walked through Kyiv with a red filter over her flash. She says that since 2014, many Ukrainians understood the threat of invasion, but could not fully believe it. But when, in 2021, Russian troops began circling her nation’s border, and the global community turned a blind eye, she sought to capture her anxiety and fear with photography. The red stained images represent the magma that was beginning to surface as lava; the ground beneath our feet can be far less stable than we hope.
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As a nonfiction photographer, Bukreyeva’s work is inextricably linked to the war and events affecting her community. She captures her life, and the war is impossible to live with. Yet, her work also celebrates joy. Dead Water and Where I Was Born capture the everyday of her country and city. Although the war has changed her relationship to this series – what she captured is under immediate and existential threat – the photos are lively and often delight in the quotidian. Not Like Us, a project she considers to be her most interesting photographic experience thus far, presents the lively communities of Ukraine’s adolescents. Although only 10 years removed from them, she notes that they see her as coming from a different era. At their age, she had plans, but they have dreams.

Having left photography behind when she started working, it was not until 2019 that she took to the medium again. In a few short years, her work has already caught the attention of several street photography festivals and prizes. She recently joined the Burn My Eyes Collective, a talented group of photographers invested in candid image making. Her work is formally striking, yet thoughtful, contemplative and often unexpected––a mix found in a shortlist of great street photographers. In our interview, it becomes clear the calibre of talent that Lisa Bukreyeva represents.
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Lisa Bukreyeva, could you please introduce yourself and your work. Where are you based and what are your current projects?
I’m a documentary photographer from Kyiv. Now I’m working on several projects simultaneously. One is about youth, the other is about war. It’s true, I’ve decided that I need a love series to balance it, so I plan to start working on another project. I like to work with different topics simultaneously, it helps to be flexible and not limit yourself to one tool and approach.
I saw that you only started photographing in 2019, what happened that prompted you to take up the medium? What did you do before photography?
I feel like I’ve spent my whole life preparing for this. When I was a kid, I dreamed of a superpower, I just wanted to take pictures when I blinked. That way, everything I’m seeing in a given moment would be captured in a picture. I never acquired this superpower, so I bought a camera instead. I used to shoot when I was in high school and learned the technical side of photography. But then, I had to start working – and it’s almost impossible to make money by taking documentary photographs in Ukraine. So I worked in different jobs, I used to even sell Christmas trees. I hadn’t picked up a camera in years, but it’s impossible to truly throw away photography.
What is your relationship to street photography? What do you see as the relevance of this field currently? Who are some photographers that have inspired your work?
I believe that street photography is undervalued and underestimated, primarily by photographers. When everyone has a camera in their pocket, and our social networks are filled with images of the everyday life of our loved ones and idols, what happens on the street with strangers is no longer interesting. At some point, street photography transformed into silhouettes and an eternal pursuit of light and shadow. Photographers became hunters. In my opinion, life on the streets, the emotions there, are much more important than a good visual image or colour. You see, life goes by, people and their habits too, cities are being wiped out, but the colour will always remain the same. In a hundred years, yellow will still be yellow. Perhaps this stagnation will benefit the genre, and authors will be able to find new connections and approaches.
If we’re talking about the authors who work with street photography, and have always impressed me, it would have to be Martin Parr, Daido Moriyama, Vivian Maier, and Bruce Gilden.
Tell me about your ongoing project 2402. War Diary. What does the name mean? You combine words and images here. How do you approach working with both mediums at the same time?
Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, I have had to move into my mother’s house, because she has a basement that can be used as a shelter during rocket attacks. This is a relatively safe place. And on that day, the flow of time changed, and on the third day, I realized that I did not distinguish the change of day. Everything merged into one long moment, and I started keeping a diary: textual and visual. It helped me structure things. Cameras, identity documents and dogs are literally all I took from my apartment. I believe that it is possible to combine different mediums, techniques and approaches in one project, if it helps to make it deeper and stronger. It seems to me that photographers often create their own limitations, which are not always necessary. For me, there are no boundaries.
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Your most recent entry on day 109 expresses that, “No film, book or photograph can convey the horrors of what is happening.” What does this mean for you as a storyteller? How do you continue to make work with this knowledge?
When I realised that, it was easier to film; the realisation that even people living in war are incapable of realising the horror of what is happening, because it is impossible to live with. Literally, it’s impossible to live with. And when you take a photograph, you always analyse whether it’s enough: does this photograph show what happened here? But it’s impossible. Because, the fear, the willingness to die, the pain of people who were eyewitnesses or who suffered at the hands of the Russian military, the bravery and courage of the defenders, are impossible to convey or describe. It smells different, the war smells, you know. You’re literally walking through shell casings, shards of people’s homes, kids who look like they’ve lived a few lives. And they lived, and they saw things that no one should see. It frees you up as a photographer because whatever you do, it won’t be enough.
Tell me about Stay Safe. Here, you juxtapose text messages with photos of an empty and sandbagged city prepared for war. What has digital communication meant for you as the war has continued? What do you hope to show with this project?
War changes everything. It touches absolutely everything you are used to. The city is changing, it’s like his teeth are growing. I’ve lived my whole life in Kyiv but it's never looked so desolate and aggressive. Many checkpoints, trenches, anti-tank hedgehogs and sandbags. They were literally everywhere. It felt like Kyiv was ready to fight.
And parallel to the first day of the full-scale invasion, I started getting a lot of messages from friends and acquaintances from different countries. Everyone was worried and wished for the safety of me and my family. But this security was to be provided by the city, by the military. I made a connection, and that’s how the series turned out.
You recently joined the Burn My Eye collective. Where do you see your work fitting into their focus?
I’ve been following the collective since 2019, and I had literally been studying their members' works. I liked that the collective has never considered itself to be one genre. Only candid photography. Is my photography candid? Definitely. It may not fit into the frameworks of documentary or street, but it is definitely candid. Now we’re discussing collaboration with one of the other members of the Burn My Eye collective. I can’t tell you the details yet, but I’m glad to have an opportunity. Because I’m a pretty ‘closed’ photographer. I have practically no friends of photographers, I have never had a mentor, and I’m not always comfortable in photographic communities.
You say in your statement for Not Like Us that it “is a project about growing up and the time it takes.” Here, you are photographing people in the midst of growing up, as a grown up. Tell me about this experience. Did you re-encounter your own memories of youth, or find a changed culture?
This is probably my most interesting project experience. Because, for these guys, I’m from a different era. Although we’re only 10 years apart, and that’s not much, it's enough to make them think I’m too old to hang out with them. As for the new generation, I’d say all has changed, but all is still the same. They are freer and more open to the new, and they respect personal boundaries and they dream. I don’t know why, but my community in adolescence did not dream at all. We had plans, but not dreams. And these are completely different approaches to life. When you start dreaming at 25, it’s not the same as those dreams that 18-year-olds can paint.
And yes, to some extent, I’ve managed to recreate my memories. Maybe even partially replace them.
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You sometimes cut between street photography and experimentation with manipulation, at times merging the two. I see this particularly in Magma. Tell me a bit about the relationship you see between manipulation and documentary work?
While working on the Magma, I used a red filter on the flash. That is, the photos were really taken with red dots. In my opinion, it is better to experiment with materials or techniques when you are capturing a certain image than use post processing. So, when I would go around the city to take pictures, I would light up everything in red. You know, usually people react to the flash, ask questions about what I shoot and why. But no one asked me any questions while I was working on this series. There was some tension, it wasn’t normal. As I said, I think there are no boundaries. You can combine whatever you want in your project. There are no rules for connecting different images in the series, there is only you and your work, do what you want. If it’s good for the project, do it. The photographs are in any case not objective, even documentary. Visually, I thought it was the most appropriate metaphor to describe anxiety. When it seems like it’s going to rain fire, but you’re just standing outside the house and nothing happens, it’s even more normal than usual. Except how you feel.
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You have released a great deal of work as NFTs. Why is this a channel through which you share your work?
I wonder how Web3 will develop. Especially in the context of photography. And I think it’s a great way for authors to stop depending on commercial shooting, or curators. Now authors can participate in building this community, a really unique experience.
What is your process? How premeditated is your work?
I often neglect the stage of preparation, trying not to impose any images or scenes in advance. I think it’s important to be open to photography, to seeing something new, and not fill your head with fictional scenes – otherwise you can miss a lot. I know that some authors choose references and are inspired before work. I try to completely free my head. But when I’m working on a series, I always know how to present it better in the form of an exhibition, or what design to choose for the book. They already exist in my head, although I have not published any personal books.
None of my work is commercial. I only shoot what I think is important, and what interests me. This removes many restrictions, as photography is, in my opinion, one of the few art forms that can exist without a viewer.
What kind of camera do you shoot with and why? How do you navigate capturing a moment without disrupting it?
I don’t get attached to one camera, I can shoot on medium format film or using digital compact cameras. It’s just an instrument, and I’m scared to think that I’m ever going to pick one camera and only shoot with it all the time. Photographers are very lucky with the variety of cameras that exist, and how different results can be obtained with their help. The way I see it, you need to get out of your comfort zone, not be afraid to change tools. No one will go to a band concert if they only have two songs. Even if they are very good.
Not interfering is very simple but shooting without interfering is more difficult. I realised that you do not need to hide the camera. The more people around you that know you have a camera, the less they pay attention to it in the end. When I feel organic with the camera, no one pays attention to it. Sometimes, I can literally lie next to a stranger to take a shot, and it won’t scare him. Because he saw me, he saw my camera, and he knew that girl must be a photographer. With this approach, people who don’t want to be photographed will say it in advance. It looks like a contract with all the parties involved. 
So far, your work has been grounded in your place of origin. Do you think this will ever change?
Sure. But I don’t think my work is just about my homeland. Dead Water or Not like Us could be filmed almost anywhere. I am sure that I will not limit myself to Ukraine, although I am definitely interested in exploring my country.
What is next for Lisa Bukreyeva?
The war taught me not to plan for a long period of time, and not to delay. But now I’m interested in experimental photography, maybe it’ll be some kind of documentary pinhole or a return to low-quality digital images. But an idea without implementation is worthless, so let’s see. It will be interesting to read my answer in a year and see what came out of it. And I have no doubt that it will be something quite the opposite.
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