Natalie Keyssar, Soldiers say emotional goodbyes to their partners at the Lviv train station before heading to the front lines, March 8, 2022, for Time

For the past month, the documentary photographer and photojournalist Natalie Keyssar has been traveling throughout Poland and Ukraine. She has produced powerful, yet devastating records of those affected by Russia’s invasion, many taken on assignment for Time magazine. The war, which escalated on February 24 following Russia’s attack, has left disastrous effects on Ukraine and its citizens, with no end in sight. Russian forces continue their attacks as they face resistance from Ukrainian troops and civilians fighting for their country. This week, the United Nations reported that more than 3.7 million people have fled Ukraine so far.

Regularly working for Time, the New York Times, National Geographic, and other publications, Keyssar has developed a practice that is notable for her commitment to going beyond the surface of the stories she’s assigned—with series that range from the long-term effects of the 2014 Venezuelan protests to the female equestrians keeping Mexican traditions alive in California. Here, Cassidy Paul speaks with Keyssar about her experiences in Ukraine, the uncomfortable line between aesthetics and storytelling, and the essential need for photography in a moment of crisis.

Natalie Keyssar, Alisa Kosheleva (far left) on the phone during the train ride from Poland to Lviv with other mothers on their own journeys towards their children, March 6, 2022, for Time

Cassidy Paul: How did you decide to travel to the border between Poland and Ukraine? Were you sent on assignment, or did you go by personal motivation?

Natalie Keyssar: Most of my great-grandparents were from Ukraine, and I’d always wanted to come and see where they were from—I just never ever thought it would be under these circumstances. When the news of the war broke out, I was reading the reports about all of these civilians taking up arms to defend their home, and all of these families running for safety, and it was one of those situations where I got this really powerful compulsion to go.

Which, to be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about. I think this feeling is something that governed a lot of my life and that of other journalists—something between inspiration and anxiety and obsession. I’m not at all sure it’s wholly altruistic; in fact, I’m sure it’s not. But there was something about this moment that was so moving, and I wanted to be here, and so I started contacting editors and letting them know I was coming. When I spoke with my editors at Time, we started planning to work together with the wonderful journalist Amie Ferris Rotman.

Natalie Keyssar, Fatima Ezzahra shows a message to <em>Time</em> using Google Translate at the Medyka border in Poland, March 1, 2022, for <em>Time</em>“>
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Natalie Keyssar, Fatima Ezzahra shows a message to Time using Google Translate at the Medyka border in Poland, March 1, 2022, for Time
Natalie Keyssar, Refugees sleep on the cold ground on the Polish side of the Medyka crossing, March 1, 2022, for <em>Time</em>“>
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Natalie Keyssar, Refugees sleep on the cold ground on the Polish side of the Medyka crossing, March 1, 2022, for Time

Paul: What are the stories you’ve been working on while there?

Keyssar: The first story we did was about the horrific racism that people of color living in Ukraine faced as they tried to flee the cities under attack. Report after report was coming out, mostly via social media at first, about African, Asian, and Middle Eastern people being left for days in long lines out in the cold at the border, being beaten by police, or refused entry to trains, in the midst of this desperate wartime dash for safety. Amie and I started by photographing and interviewing many of these people as they finally arrived in Poland. That story felt very urgent—one of those rare cases where you feel as a journalist that if you can highlight a terrible human-rights violation, maybe you can apply some pressure to improve the situation a little bit. It was very painful hearing these people’s stories of abuse in the midst of such an already awful situation, but I was so inspired by their courage and dignity as I spoke with them.

Natalie Keyssar, Refugees wake after sleeping on blankets and cardboard on the ground on the Polish side of the Medyka crossing, March 1, 2022, Medyka, Poland, for Time

The second story I worked on for Time with Amie Ferris Rotman is about mothers returning to Ukraine from abroad to be with their families or to help evacuate them. We were speaking with women at the train station in Przemyśl, Poland, where so many thousands of refugees were crossing through, and we realized that there were a lot of women in line for the trains entering Ukraine, among the majority of men returning to fight. Amie and I looked at each other like, This is really important.

There is this simplified narrative that the women are all fleeing with children while the men run to the front line to fight, and here were all these steadfast mothers, with their jaws set and their eyes steely, who were going home to get their kids, or care for their parents, or sign up and fight. We believe it is really important to report on the courage and strength of these Ukrainian women. A lot of people refer to them as the “rear front line,” and I think that’s a very good term for a lot of what they do, although there are also so many women on the actual front lines. So, we realized we had to follow them back into Ukraine to do this story, and that’s what we did with the support of our editors at Time.

Natalie Keyssar, Women cut strips for camp nets at a Library in Lviv, March 7, 2022, for Time

Paul: From the work you’ve made, what has stuck out to you the most in the moment? Was there anything you experienced that was different from what you expected?

Keyssar: Definitely what’s stuck out to me most are the moments I’ve shared with these people and how moving and inspiring and unfathomably strong everyone I’ve met has been. What I will remember is their courage and grace. I’ll remember Fatima staring back through the fence at the Medyka crossing, weeping because her brother had been stopped and beaten and was in the hospital, and she couldn’t help him, but I’ll also remember how she found the strength to comfort his wife, who was even more upset about it than she was. I’ll remember Varun, an Indian student and entrepreneur, who hadn’t slept in days during his escape from Ukraine and had no idea where he would go, and still managed to crack hilarious jokes all morning as we chatted and apologized for his dirty clothing as though he had any control over that.

The way people take care of each other. The volunteers working tirelessly to help in any way they can. The determination of artists and DJs and cooks and IT techs to defend their country at any cost. Maybe more than anything, I’ll remember a young woman named Anna, who I was hanging out and chatting with when she got the call that her mother, a military medic, had been killed. That is war to me. The faces of people when the worst thing imaginable happens. The helplessness when there is absolutely nothing you can do. Anna is on her way back to the front lines right now, as I write this. And the sheer volume of the horror and the suffering. That so many millions of people are experiencing the worst moments of their lives in unison, all at the hands of fellow human beings who are choosing to do this. It’s been a lesson in cruelty too.

Natalie Keyssar, At the train station in Lviv, a night train departs for Kyiv, March 9, 2022, for <em>Time</em>“>
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Natalie Keyssar, At the train station in Lviv, a night train departs for Kyiv, March 9, 2022, for Time
Natalie Keyssar, Alisa Kosheleva, photographed in Lviv, was abroad in Barcelona when the war began. Her son was with his father in Mariupol, March 8, 2022, for <em>Time</em>“>
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Natalie Keyssar, Alisa Kosheleva, photographed in Lviv, was abroad in Barcelona when the war began. Her son was with his father in Mariupol, March 8, 2022, for Time

Paul: What have been some of the differences or similarities of shooting this experience, compared to past series or assignments you’ve worked on?

Keyssar: A lot of my work has to do with violence and crisis, but I personally have never witnessed something of this scale before, where so many millions of people have suddenly had their lives shattered in the same moment. For the past several years, I’ve increasingly believed that the actual photography I make is by far the least important part of my work. It’s the moments I share with people and what I learn from them. But my work is to find a way to express these moments in imagery, to make them seen and felt.

I’ve been trying to reconcile this sense of, “What does a picture even mean here?” with the need and desire to make images that stop people and make them listen to the people I photograph and their stories. It’s a mess in my head between deprioritizing aesthetics in favor of photographing gently and slowly and collaboratively, and wanting the aesthetics to grab people and make them pay attention. Of course, the two things are not mutually exclusive—in fact, often the opposite—but I’m constantly reviewing and obsessing about the ethics and best practices of making pictures during crisis. With such an overwhelming amount of need and trauma here, sometimes it’s a real battle to lift the camera. It feels like such a stupid thing to do sometimes, at a funeral for fallen soldiers, at a train station where every inch of the floor is lined with weary refugees. Around a barrel fire in a field near the border, where students from Nigeria who slept on the ground, nursing bruises from racist beatings, and have just lost everything and have no idea where they will go, are warming their frostbitten fingers.

Honestly, the more experience I have, sometimes the harder it gets for me to squeak out the words, “Hello, can I make your portrait?” But it’s the people that inspire me—who want people to know what they have been through, who want people to know what is happening in their home—that remind me to keep going. Alisa, one of the mothers I photographed in Mariupol, ran up to us and said: “Please tell the world what is happening to us.” Moments like that are when I feel my work has the most value.

Natalie Keyssar, In a room upstairs in the Lviv train station, designated as a shelter for women and children, many take a moment to rest, March 8, 2022, for Time

Paul: Has there been one specific photograph you’ve made so far that has stuck with you?

Keyssar: I think it’s going to be a while until I can really look at and understand the pictures I’ve made here and what they mean to me. To be honest, as usual, a lot of the most important moments have been things I couldn’t photograph out of respect or for safety reasons—instead, I’m trying to write about them.

I made some pictures of young women saying goodbye to their boyfriends and husbands at the train station in Lviv a couple of weeks back. There’s one of a young couple holding each other before he heads off on one of the trains to the front, and she’s holding onto him like she can’t will her hands to let go, and there’s a tear running down her cheek. It hurts to look at, but it captures a lot of what I feel about this amazing country and this awful war. I think of picture making often as the process of creating totems and symbols—universal touchstones that are both literal and universal. This moment at the train station evokes a sense of history, but most importantly I think it shows the hope and heartbreak of war. Ukrainians are being forced to sacrifice everything to protect themselves from Russia’s attacks right now—and in this moment I felt I could see it.

Natalie Keyssar, The Lviv train station was packed with lines stretching in wide circles around the nearby plaza with people trying to get out of Ukraine, March 8, 2022, for Time

Paul: What do you think is most important for photographers working in Ukraine or on stories related to the war right now?

Keyssar: I think what’s important is commitment and empathy. There are so many amazing, brave photographers and journalists on the ground right now, and I’m so grateful to all of them for telling these stories. Just to name a few: Julia Kochetova, who is Ukrainian and creating some of the most powerful work I’ve seen from here in her home of Kyiv; Anastasia Taylor Lind, who has been working in Ukraine for a decade and producing powerful, committed, thoughtful work from the region; Erin Trieb and Lynsey Addario, who have been on the front lines for weeks now; Evgeniy Maloletka, a Ukrainian photographer who has been documenting places like Mariupol, which are under such heavy bombardment and vicious atrocities of civilian populations that it is nearly impossible to work there, and yet he has been one of the only people telling their stories from the ground, creating a document of war crimes and massacres that would otherwise remain hidden because the area is completely cut off from the outside world right now.

Natalie Keyssar, Sofia, 13, of Luhansk, poses for a portrait at the Women’s shelter, March 10 2022, for <em>Time</em><br>
All photographs courtesy the artist”>
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Natalie Keyssar, Sofia, 13, of Luhansk, poses for a portrait at the Women’s shelter, March 10 2022, for Time
All photographs courtesy the artist
Natalie Keyssar, Volunteer efforts across Lviv including packing food boxes, sewing flak jackets, and weaving camouflage nets, March 8 2022, for <em>Time</em>“>
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Natalie Keyssar, Volunteer efforts across Lviv including packing food boxes, sewing flak jackets, and weaving camouflage nets, March 8 2022, for Time

Paul: How do you think photography plays a role in the telling of stories or information during a moment of crisis like this?

Keyssar: I think images really humanize and individualize situations like wars, which sometimes might seem too big and awful and abstract to understand on an intimate level, maybe especially if you’ve never experienced something similar. In the longer term, making photographs of these situations and these people is really creating the historical record of these terrible events. So in that way, it is incredibly important, especially in a time when the realities of what’s happening are often distorted or even erased by propaganda and disinformation.

There is a particular value in photography being a universal language. We see ourselves in the eyes of the people in the photographs. We don’t need a translation to read the feelings and feel them in our own bodies. I have admiration for every single person I’ve photographed—and my heart breaks at what humans are capable of doing to each other.