Right of way: An interview with Donald Weber



9 minutes reading

Perceived by some people as staged art, the work of Canadian photographer Donald Weber captures horrifying but very real moments. From raw landscapes with abandoned buildings to intimate portraits of people in interrogation cells, Weber's photography takes you closer to what power, or a lack of it, does to people. "I just wanna go places I shouldn't go," he tells GUP during a short visit to The Netherlands.

"Anywhere outside of my home is interesting to me," Weber says on a sunny afternoon at the BredaPhoto festival, where he has an exhibition of his project Interrogations. The series earned him a World Press Photo 1st prize in the category stories earlier this year. Praised for both its aesthetic work and its political content, the series left the jury wondering how Weber had got access to the interrogation room. For Weber, access starts with curiosity and the desire to go places. And that curiosity can happen anywhere. "For example, this place, Breda, looks very normal to me. But still, I don't belong here." He gestures towards the cars behind him and the 16th century monastery next to us. "I like going places that I don't belong. That started maybe when I arrived in Rotterdam. I was 23, fresh out of college. I came to a new country, where I didn't know anybody, or anything, and that was just a great feeling."

In the mid-nineties, Weber worked at architect Rem Koolhaas' Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in Rotterdam. He enjoyed his work there, however, during a motorcycle accident, as he fell to the ground, he decided to become a photographer. He had always wanted to become a journalist, and a camera that he had borrowed felt so good in his hands, so why not become a photojournalist?

One of his first projects was to cover the Orange Revolution in Kiev, but soon he was bored by it. "It's kind of a redundant thing. You're not discovering why people are demonstrating, why they are waving the flags," Weber says. "So, I started looking for other things, the daily lives of the people who went to demonstrate. The only way to alleviate my curiosity is by taking pictures. As long as I can see something that I shouldn't, I will photograph it. And I like to go places I shouldn't go to." According to Weber, this method is inexhaustible. "Even when a place looks perfect or something seems to be working perfectly, then I'll wonder why - I won't trust it."

Should there always be a sense of danger in his photography? "Maybe situations should be vaguely threatening, yes. Although, I've been to China, which I don't find threatening, only peculiar, anomalous to the way that I live. But every now and then I do like to smell that adrenaline too, yes. It gets you moving and your senses are heightened." He quickly adds, "I'm a bad war photographer though, because 1) I have limits, and 2) I'm patient. I know that war, disaster, shit, snow, sunshine, rain, whatever - it's all going to come again."

As it happens, it was Weber's patience that helped him get access to places and people. Many of his projects depend on people's willingness to allow him into their worlds. For example, in his series in Chernobyl and Fukushima, he photographed radiation-poisoned people in post-nuclear places -- "places one is not supposed to live in" as Weber calls them. His book Interrogations, which was published earlier this year, asked even more of his patience than any of his other projects.

As more good ideas in Weber's career, the idea for this book started with a traffic scene, too: "It was during my first trip to Ukraine in 2004, and it was my last day there. I was at the airport crossing a zebra stripe. In the corner of my eye I saw a big black Mercedes rumbling down the road. I continued crossing the street since, in Canada, you have the right of way when you're on foot, 'cause after all, you're the weaker one. Well, the Mercedes was thinking he had right of way too: 'I'm a big black Mercedes, and I'm more powerful than you,' he must have been thinking. We were kind of playing chicken, I was refusing to move and he drove up right to my knees. Then he got out shouting, and I shouted at him. And my Ukrainian friend said 'Do you know who that is? You can't shout at him like that.' And I said 'I don't care who he is.' Then my friend said 'You don't understand this place.' That was the moment when I realised that maybe the power differentials are different there from where I'm from. That got me thinking about photographing power. I already knew I wanted to do something with it, but not yet what. Until that moment."

Weber found power in the police. He met a Ukrainian policeman who would take him along on his daily investigations and raids. But first, Weber had to gain the policeman's respect. One way to be taken seriously by him was drinking. The other, shooting guns. "I'm not a big drinker," Weber explains, “so having to out-drink somebody is hard work for me. But it seemed like the only way. Ukraine is a very paternalistic society. A man is a man and western men are considered weaklings. So I knew that in order to get the access that I needed, I would have to be considered 'a man.' And indeed, when I could have one or two more drinks, that is when I finally got some respect. I also know how to handle guns, and the policemen I met liked to go shooting out in the forest. As a kid, my grandfather who was a hunter taught me how to shoot. I still don't know a lot about guns, but I knew enough to impress the police guys. They gave me three targets and I shot them all."

After out-drinking, out-shooting and waiting for weeks on a bench in the police station, he finally got the opportunity to photograph people in the process of being interrogated. It wasn't exactly a dream come true. More like a nightmare at times: "I didn't enjoy the interrogations, I didn't want to be there. It's not a nice situation to be in when somebody is clearly being manipulated. Sometimes they did do the crime and that did not exactly make them nice people to be in a room with. I don't want to sit beside somebody who is accused of rape!" Yet, in continuing to sit beside them, Weber was able to capture an impressive series of photographs.

One photograph shows a man with a gun pointed to its head. The arm holding the gun, which belongs to the police officer, extends through half of the frame. There is a striped black and white blouse with a gun in hand, but the person who must be somewhere behind this powerful arm remains invisible. This is power in its simplest form: threatening and anonymous. In another photograph, a woman is crying her eyes out. The wrinkles in her drawn face are as vertical as the tracks of her tears. "They were incredibly vulnerable too," Weber says, "and to witness somebody's vulnerability is difficult. As a student of psychology it might have been fascinating, but I'm not a student of psychology."

As heavy as it was, the thought that he could quit never crossed his mind: "Once I'm in, I'm in, and I have to go through. Even if I loathe it or despise it. It's like with a book I just finished. I hated it. But when I'm on my way, I have to finish it. That was the same with this project." When asked what got him through the project he looks surprised that he has to explain it all again. In a questioning tone, he says: "The thought that it was going to be over?"

Weber worked on the book for Interrogations together with well-known book designer Teun van der Heijden. "He made some good choices. It could've become a stylized book of 'look at these bad-asses' kind of photographs. There was one publisher who wanted to make it that way. He wanted to use mainly my photographs of prisoners with their tattoos and stuff. He thought that would be a really cool book. But that, to me, would have been irresponsible. I still have a responsibility to the policeman and the people in the photographs. I won't tell anybody the policeman's name, or where he lives. Also I won't be selling this work in a gallery in a commercial place where I could get 5000 euro prints. However, if a museum wants to mount a production that is going to cost 40,000 euros to make the installation like they imagine it, I wouldn't have a problem with that. There are degrees of responsibility in these photographs: I'm simply protecting the subjects from becoming modified. I think that the book, how it is now, addresses the topic with empathy and respect."

"One gallery owner said to me, when he found out that the photographs were real: 'Too bad it isn't theatre, too bad you didn't set it up. I could've sold this for 10,000, 20,000 euros. But because it's real, it takes away from the work.' That to me is an absurdity and that's the problem with art today. The reason I'm reluctant to be an artist, in fact. I would love to sell my prints for 20,000 euros but I also have a responsibility, so I can't do that. I sometimes wonder why I even have to explain that to people who want to work with me."

no camera
While trained in visual aesthetics for over ten years, to Weber, aesthetics never comes first. The stories matter, how they look is something that comes after. "I don't even really care about photography that much, I don't have a camera with me right now," he confesses. Then, as if it is a very normal thing to say, he continues: "Most of the time I wish I weren't a photographer."

To Weber, the camera functions as a way to get into worlds that he normally can't get into. And, again, it is patience that helps him in this process. "I've been to Afghanistan and I've photographed women alone in their homes. And I'm a man. A man is not supposed to be there, but I was there. The thing is that you need to be upfront and genuinely interested in somebody. Then you're not taking an exploitative position. I did the Interrogations series because I'm genuinely interested in the policeman as a person and in the people he interrogated as persons, and I think I can get that across. It's not a conceptual construction for me. I met hundreds of people who said 'Are you really interested in my story?' And I only said, 'Yes, I am interested in your story.' Nobody ever talks to them, and certainly nobody ever listens to them. I learned that if you sit down and listen, and you're genuine about it, you can do whatever."

See also:

Donald Weber's website
GUP's interview with book designer Teun van der Heijden
GUP's review of Interrogations