With the next interview in our ongoing series we’re talking to photographer Donald Weber who is based in Eastern Europe and is with the VII Network. You should quickly see why he and I have connected, given our overlapping interests with a certain part of the world. Many of the questions I asked, frankly, were bent to my own personal interest in what it means to move halfway around the world to photograph stories you’re personally passionate about. I’m sure some of you can relate. But more importantly to most of you, he is producing interesting and important work much on his own terms and is rising his profile, and has had an interesting life so far. And has interesting things to say about what he is doing.
Amongst many accomplishments Weber has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lange-Taylor Prize and a World Press Photo award. He was a 2006 winner of the Photolucida Critical Mass review which just published his book Bastard Eden, Our Chernobyl (which I previously mentioned here). Before becoming a photographer, he worked as an architect with the world-renowned Rem Koolhaas in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. For his full biography have a look at the about page on his website.
What is your background, in interests and academics? Where do you come from?
Well, Canadian, from Toronto, downtown, which may have influenced my outlook. Taking the subway at 12 years old to school everyday definitely gives an impression on a youngster, glad I was able to see what I did. Anyway, my academic background is not so academic, I studied at an alternative high school that offered an intensive arts education, from the age of 16 until graduation in grade 13, I studied art all day everyday. We had four hours of life drawing two days a week – that would be nudes, thus lots of people were jealous of us, plus an 8 hour day of art history and then we would major and minor in two artistic practices. I wanted to be artist, not really sure what that was or how I would do it, but initially that was my goal. I then went on to study at art college, the Ontario College of Art & Design, where I majored in – I forget the complex phrasing of the subject, something like Art and the Environment. Basically, making massive intrusions into the public landscape. Great! But I totally wasted my time, as far as I’m concerned, education is wasted on the young! It was a conflict in my youth of what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it. I loved the idea of creating something, anything, I didn’t care how as long as I could. Then I had this interest in photography, and in particular photojournalism, which went against all the grains of an artistic education that I was brought up on.
So it was an interesting education, for almost 10 years I was schooled in very sophisticated forms of visual education that certainly influences me to this day. The practicalities may have changed, but the essence of being visual are always the same. Line, shape, form, colour, mood, tone, conceptual processes, etc., are all linked at the very core, and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to have had an education that grounded these roots into my young head.
Tell me about your time with architecture.
Well architecture came about rather haphazardly. in order to understand my time within that field, you have to understand first how I ended up there; it’s a rather convoluted process but one that is inherent as to my position today.
Back to my high schooling. As I stated before, I had an interest in both art and photojournalism. My passion, in my final year, was won out with photojournalism. It was in November of that year before graduation where in Canada we make our applications to post secondary institutions. I wanted to apply to two – Rochester Institute of Technology for PJ, and a smaller college just outside of Toronto for a basic three year photography course. I asked my photography (and I quote verbatim the following conversation):
Me: Robert, which school do you think I should apply to? RIT or Sheridan?
Robert (the teacher): What? Why would you apply to either? You suck as a photographer!
Thus, I literally brought my cameras home and put them in a drawer, not to be touched for about 10 years. It was then I decided to find a different path. I replaced photography with ceramics; my mother was not so pleased. Anyway, while studying at OCAD, I developed an interest in architecture, planning and landscape design and was captured by the writings and designs of the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. So, I set my sights on working for him. When I graduated in 1996, I headed overseas to Rotterdam where his practice was based, and promptly got a job, precisely because I was not a trained architect. I worked there for about three years. It was a great experience, but certainly soul crushing. I found architecture to be a rather drab profession and nearly impossible to do anything of interest, save for the exception of Rem Koolhaas and a few others. But I learned about ideas, how to think in a conceptual manner and to find ways to bring those ideas into fruition. It also taught me on more practical levels things about budgeting and planning and just being professional; things I think we take for granted that all go into the realities of being a working photographer.
Anyway, it was not a highlight of my life but I think a necessary step.
What brought you to photography? Was there a specific event that made you say “I am going to be a photographer”?
Yes, very specific event! My whole life has these cascading elements that when all put together certainly illuminate what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I was born in 1973, thus when the events of the late 80’s and early 90’s came around, I was at the ripe age to start taking notice. For me, these were the most historical and important times of my generation. The collapse of communism, the events in Tiananmen Square, the first Iraq War. These were all events that were shaped and played out in magazines and television. I was a teenager and just discovering more than my backyard, it was an awakening physically, mentally, socially, everything, for me. I remember clearly watching hundreds of thousands of Eastern European refugees fleeing their countries for elsewhere, the Wall collapsing, the Ceaucescu’s being executed, Boris Yeltsin on top of a tank. All these events were seared into my mind, and those events shaped what I wanted to do with my life. I had always been aware of news images, but never before did I connect that somebody actually went out there and made those pictures until I was older. It was a massive lightbulb that went off and I wanted to be a part of it.
Anyway, that was event number one. The second event was my diversion to architecture for awhile; I listened to closely what my high school teacher had to say; never again! Anyway, it was while I was living in Europe that I remembered what photography was all about. I wanted to remember living in Europe, so I bought a camera – it was great! I couldn’t put it down, all I did was take photos. Crappy, but they were photos. It was then that I said okay – I’m going to be a photographer – but how was a much more difficult question. It wasn’t until March of 2000, a few days before I was to leave on a year long trip to ride my motorcycle across Africa (something I had previously done in 1998) where the jump was finally made. I had just quit my job as an architect, not really knowing what to do. I was taking the bike out for one last tune up spin when I got hit by a car. I just remember sliding across the hood of some old Chevy, sliding on my back seeing my crumpled bike and thinking, okay, now’s the time to be a photographer. So I never did the bike trip to Africa; I “became” a photographer. That summer I got an internship at the Toronto Sun, a tabloid.
What were your early interests as a photographer? Influences?
I don’t really know, for me it was such a long battle to finally start taking pictures that influences and interests were a secondary thought! But, as a teenager, photojournalism was a very powerful force in me. I remember Kenneth Jarecke’s burned Iraqi soldier from the first Iraq War, Chris Morris’ Panama photos, Don McCullin – it was important because what they were photographing was important – and that was important to me! So I’d say my interests were in the realm that photography could act as a document; the total opposite of my art education. to me art had become superfluous, something dilettantes dabbled in; it had lost it’s meaning. Photography was the opposite. As I grew, my more literal influences was the photographer Raymond Depardon, still is. To me he has managed to encapsulate perfectly what a photographer is and should be. Bridge influences and ideas from all facets and present them in his own manner. That is something I strive to do, to take what I see but also to take what I feel and make my own story of it.
My interests are always morphing; there was a time when I thought Chris Morris could do no wrong (still do). But my art training definitely influenced me in the way I see; not what I see, but how I interpret that. I used to really enjoy the old masters and specifically religious paintings of the 15 – 17 centuries. So much blood, red, white, gold, colour, pain; totally terrified me.
Who do you read? Do you read and appreciate magazines? Do you read the publications you work for?
Actually I love reading and that is really my sole form of research. Without reading I would just be pressing a button. I find novels and other books can greatly shed light on a place or subject you want to understand. As I was working on my Gulag work, I read of course Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, prison memoirs, non-fiction books such as the biography of Stalin, anything by Robert Conquest (a must!) plus the Russian masters of literature. Currently, I just finished Mikhail Bulgakov’s White Guard and Flight – these books completely influenced me in the way I edited all my Russia work into a book. I find that you will get visual clues or keys to your pictures by reading those who have been there before. Right now I am reading Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread about Stalin and Kapuscinski’s Imperium (ed: a favorite of mine, mentioned here) and a book called the Black Book of Communism, compiling all crimes that communism has wreaked upon the planet. Fascinating book.
As for the mags, I read the newsweeklies when I can and I still like paper so I read newspapers, when back in Canada the Globe and Mail. I fly a lot so I read mags on the plane; I cannot quite get my head into a book on a plane. So I like Vanity Fair (long articles!) and well hey, you have to balance the serious with the banal, I like those stories about crazy families rendered useless by power and money. And the New Yorker, Harpers, etc., all that stuff. And Top Gear. I’m saddened I cannot watch Top Gear when I’m away.
Why did you choose to move and work in Russia? What parts of the society are the most interesting to you and what makes you stay there to develop an extended body of work?
Well, I think the previous answers gives an understanding of why I live in the place I do. I’m a Russophile, but I also like the bleakness, the darkness mixed with this crazy euphoria that Russia seems to exude. Black optimism? It’s a fascinating place to be, stories and people and interest everywhere.
For me all of Russia is interesting, but essentially my work is about power and the wounds it inflicts on those who don’t have it. For if we don’t quest for power, what do we? And in Russia, Power is the defining form of the country.
I knew I would end up here, maybe not in the specific place but somewhere other than Toronto. I was lucky, because I managed to secure two really good grants that gave me financial freedom to disappear and explore myself as a photographer, the Lange-Taylor and a Guggenheim.
How do you define your broad projects? Where do they come from, are there goals?
See above. I had no idea what I was doing when I set out; I just went and kept my eyes and ears open for whatever was happening around me. My first foray into the east was during the Orange Revolution; at the time it was the biggest news story and I wanted to be a part of it. But within a few days I was rather bored and asked myself – just why is it that a million people are standing in the freezing cold demanding change? There is a reason – so I went to find it. And what I found has influenced my work ever since and clarified precisely what I want to say and how to say. It’s somewhat easy now; I see something and ask myself – does that fit into what I want to say? If not, I don’t bother. If so, great, more fodder to ponder.
I think we just have to be open to whatever it is that is in front of us when shooting. I tend to take an instinctual and guttural approach to pictures; kind of like how rivers were formed, or Niagara Falls.
What are your goals with what you will produce in Russia? Why is it important to you?
Well just to do good work and make it lasting and important and shed a little light on a situation or a place or a thought that perhaps hadn’t been noticed before. To me it’s also important after I read a quote from Joseph Stalin: “We are not concerned with the question how the court of history will view our present deeds.” I find that a fascinating quote and one that drives me as a photographer – as documentary photographers we are the court of history, the ones who indeed should be looking at past sins and addressing them – not to make a judgment, but to say that yes, these things did and do and will happen.
What are your opinions on the “Hollywood-style” photojournalist that bounces from war zone to war zone?
Ack, it’s crap but I see the allure. To me, I don’t know how anything of meaning or importance can be made by this. Unfortunately, I find it a superficial approach, one that relies on aesthetics and style as to how a picture looks, but not what it says. And to me, what a picture has to say – it’s context – is most important. I am not the most visual or stylized or aesthetic of photographers, but I think I have invested time and knowledge into my subjects. That being said, not everyone has to invest years of their life into their work to say a story; the problem I have is when lifestyle outweighs product and the work is veiled in BS sentiments of changing the world and that you want to move people by your photos. Just be straight up: “because I feel like such a fucking rock star and I get a kick out of being in these places”. Then at least I’ll have respect for your honesty.
Why Kiev and Moscow as a home? Could you describe your life there?
Rather dull and boring but then I could be anywhere and it could be dull and boring, thus I have to keep moving. Kiev is a much better place than Moscow thus I spend most of my time there. It’s a more “European” place (although I use that term very loosely!) and a little slower. Not so big and brash and mean and angry as Moscow is; although I had been in Moscow in the mid-90’s, now that was a city! Today, it’s all about the easy pursuit of wealth and money and stereos and black cars.
What is life like as a transplanted westerner in Eastern Europe? How are you accepted? Does your work/art have any impact?
Well at times I want to run fleeing, shaking my head at the imbecile antics I witness on a daily basis, but then the whole point is trying to grasp just exactly what it is that makes this place what it is, I love the uniqueness of being in Eastern Europe. But honestly at times I just have to leave, go back to wherever my home is (Toronto) and bask in the relative known-ness of it all. I love to be an outsider, to being on the edges of fringes of a society, for me I thrive on that and it brings a certain rawness I think to my work. It’s about entering into someone else’s world and seeing it for what it is. A dispassionate observer? I don’t know. But I have come to see many things I never would be able to see in all the books or websites or articles or interviews or other forms of research without just being, simply put, here.
How are you making a living these days, how do you underwrite your projects? What are your thoughts on this? Has it changed over time?
Grants, and then when those are done, more! I have some assignments, but not too many, it’s really tough, but I have faith and everytime I’m about to drop off the planet, something comes along. I think that’s all we can do right now is just have hope that what we do and who we are is a necessary thing. I think funding models will change away from the assignments into other modes. I believe in looking at alternative methods to photographing what I want to do, no other way. With assignments, it’s someone else’s vision in the end, you don’t “own” it as you would if it was your own work, your own thoughts and ideas.
I have a very good friend who is a writer, and we are constantly looking at ways to getting work, either through corporate or government sponsors, NGO’s, whatever. I am lucky as I am a member of the VII Network so with that comes a certain sense of prestige, and we are working towards doing something as a group project, something that we wouldn’t be able to do on our own. Also, VII does a great job of selling the archive and stories, and made me realize that as photographers, that is our pension – the archive. So if VII can keep selling whatever I produce and mixed with grants, NGO’s and other forms of sponsorship and assignments, I should do okay. But one day I just want to blow $4000 on a 52″ television and not have to save it for a photo project!
What is next for you?
Yikes – lots! I think it’s important to grow as a photographer and to get out there and see things. I don’t want to be the Russian guy, so I am looking at moving on from here in the future, but the basic themes of my work will always remain as the core values and anything I approach will fit into the structural pyramid. It makes my life easier when I know what it is what I want to say.
I hope to go to Kazakhstan for a new work that will be a part of something previous I have been working on, I see it as a trilogy or a trinity that hope to finish by the end of the year.
What links (to writers, artists, photographers, anything) should we have a look at, especially ones that we likely don’t know about?
Well, everyone knows (if they don’t they should) Raymond Depardon. Also, I have always been a fan of Jon Lowenstein, and now he’s a part of Noor so congrats to him. I also love his pal Danny Wilcox Frazier, amazing body of work from Iowa his home state called Driftless (ed: published as part of the First Book Prize in 2007, judged by none other than Robert Frank). Just shows those of us that have to leave to photograph that that is not always the case…
There’s a Korean photographer I like, Sun Tag Noh, Bill Henson, Olivier Chanarin and Adam Broomberg, Ed van der Elsken. Rem Koolhaas in architecture I still believe does interesting work, as does Willem jan Neutelings and MVRDV, Peter Wilson of Bolles Wilson I admire, all architects. Right now I like the old Russian orthodox painters of icons – again, the blood! the gore!
as for films and stuff, not much – in fact my tastes have not much progressed from my teen years, I just watched Bad Boys 1 & 2 the other night. Yikes! Could that be an indication of what life is like in a foreign city? Perhaps.
In all honesty, I have been staying away from a lot of things just because I don’t want to see what everyone else is doing, so my tastes in photography are mostly landscape photographers or those pushing their own photography further than perhaps the cultural masses think they should – hence I enjoy looking at their work. Who ever said we have to use a Leica and 35 mm format? I went to see the William Eggleston show when I was in NYC and man that was an amazing show – just to see his prints and understand where he was coming from at the time completely pissed a lot of people off yet he was doing what he felt should be done – something I think we should all take note of.
And I like to box.
(All images copyright Donald Weber/VII Network. Thanks to Weber and those who responded with questions for him. If you have anything else you’d like to ask Don, be sure to leave a comment and I’ll try to arrange some followup).