Behind the Scenes: Donald Weber’s new book Interrogations

Donald Weber has a new book of his work in Ukraine and Russia, to be released in Fall 2011 by Schilt Publishing. We asked him to give us a preview of his pictures and book dummies alongside his ideas on publishing and developing projects. As part of the funding for the project Weber is currently selling collector’s editions and a special advanced version of the book via the Interrogations Book website. Weber is a VII Network photographer from Toronto and often teaches workshops, and is hosting on July 21st and 22nd 2011 a workshop on grant writing in Berlin. Dvafoto previously interviewed Weber in December 2008 when he was living in Kiev and in the midst of the photography and travels that would become this book.

Could you introduce the work featured in your new book Interrogations
Following an exploratory trip to Chernobyl in 2005, I soon returned to the abandoned site of the nuclear disaster and spent the next seven years in Russia and Ukraine photographing the ruins of the unstoppable storm we call history. Traveling and living with ordinary people who had survived much, had survived everything, this project begins to see the modern State as a primitive and bloody sacrificial rite of unnamed Power.

Interrogations is the result of my personal quest to uncover the hidden meaning of the bloody 20th Century. In dialogue with friend and writer Larry Frolick – whose own ancestors had been decimated in the final months of WW II – I insistently and provocatively address questions both to the living survivors and to the ghosts of the State’s innumerable victims, resurrecting their final hours by taking their point of view, and performing a kind of incantatory meditation over their private encounters with Power.

The policemen, working girls, thugs, dissidents and hustlers who inhabit these pages are all orphans of a secret History; the outlines of our collective fate takes shape in this epic work, expanding our awareness of what it means to be an actor in today’s dark opera.

How did the idea for a book of this work come about? How did it change over time?
Stalin famously said, “I am not concerned with how the court of History will judge our current deeds.” I found this a fascinatingly provocative statement, and one that goes right to the heart of who I am as a photographer. I began seeing my role as that of the court of History, another somebody who could examine the deeds of History and present it to an audience. I am much more concerned with making pictures about something rather than of something. As I delved deeper and deeper into my work, I became inspired by the writers such as Mikhail Bulgakov, Varlam Shalamov and Vasily Grossman, all artists who reveal the incantatory slogans of History and their dark meanings.

So, I started to investigate and examine not just the subject matter I was interested in, but the methods of how best to present that work. I felt these writers to be an inspiration and thus the ideas of the book really began to reveal themselves. I see the role of a photographer not just as a creator of visual narrative, but also a communicator of ideas and people and places and subjects that can be explored much like a novelist explores certain themes. With this in mind, a book was the only obvious way forward.

I cannot say I set out to photograph what I photographed, in fact my original ideas were quite different then what you see in the book. I am an instinctual photographer, I rarely travel with a plan in mind, I prefer moving through a space not just intellectually but through my stomach and my heart. It’s only when I start seeing things, talking to people, getting involved and gaining a little knowledge about the place do the real ideas begin. It’s the same in editing, I lay a bunch of small prints on the floor and I just sit surrounded by them on the floor, the pictures reveal themselves and the places they want to be.

I had a great discussion with Teun van der Heijden, the designer of the book, back in January when we were starting the layout. He wanted the book to be the entire series of Interrogations, as did Maarten Schilt and a few others. I think my ego was a little hurt – I thought, I have spent 6 years in Siberia and Ukraine, wandering in some pretty dark places, and suddenly all this work will never be seen? But then I had a realization that because I spent these six years, these years of frustration and toil and a lot of personal sacrifice, that I could go and make this Interrogations series, that this experience allowed me to get to where I really needed to be. In the end, it’s not totally Interrogations literally, but also a very beautiful “prologue” of the spaces and people that inhabit the interrogation room, the conditions that could foster this type of treatment. I couldn’t be prouder of the direction it has taken.

The title refers, of course, not only to the confrontation of a vast uniformed apparatus and its trembling subjects as a historical set-piece, if not a ritual public ceremony, but, more cogently, to the role of the photographer in the 21st Century as an eye-witness and social critic. The answer, of course, lies in the work itself. The work either satisfies our instinct for truth, or it doesn’t. Fieldwork is the crucible of ambition.

How did you go about getting in to the process of having it published? How did you find a designer and publisher to work with?
I made an initial list (I am an inveterate list maker) of all the publishers I wished to work with. I examined their back lists and looked for books that matched not just the conceptual values of my work, but also the physical values of a book that I admire. From there, I sort of whittled the list down to about seven publishers that I felt would make a good partner. I initially trained as an architect and so I was used to collaboration; in fact one of the things I loathe most about a lot of photography books, is essentially they just become monographs of the photographers greatest images. A book should have plot and character, foreshadowing, knowledge, conflict and redemption, all the ingredients that make up a good story, but also be socially engaged, say something. I always asked myself “What do you want to say?”

I also believe in the book as an object in its own right, that it’s not just what’s between the covers, but also, yes, on the cover. How does one move through the book? How does it feel in your hands, what can I do with an object, something that occupies three dimensions as opposed to a photograph that does not? All of these things I find invaluable, and so I also made sure to work with a strong designer who would bring their own sense of what a book could and should be.

I had a few strong serious offers from a couple of publishers on my list. In the end, it came to Maarten Schilt and his company, Schilt Publishers. I found their books to be incredibly strong and with a dedication to the more difficult or serious books – and my project is certainly not going to appeal to a mass audience. Maarten was willing to take a risk. Also, a designer who I very much admired, Teun van der Heijden, works closely with Schilt. He designed Stanley Greene’s Black Passport, Marcus Bleasdale’s Rape of a Nation and many other books. Teun was on my list.

How long did this process take, how many drafts, how much time?
The process took seven years! I seem to always think in book form, not sure why. So on that very first day I set out to cover the Orange Revolution in Winter 2004, I knew there was a book somewhere inside, I just needed to dig. It wasn’t until about mid-2006, after I worked on my first book, Bastard Eden, Our Chernobyl, that the ideas began to gel. In 2007 I was a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. With a solid year of working ahead of me, I was able to essentially drop out of society and commit myself to this work. It was while working on my Guggenheim where the physical form of the book began to take shape. Conceptually, the ideas were beginning to form, I knew what I needed to shoot and why.

My very first book dummy was a notebook that I glued a bunch of 4×6″ prints into, starting to build the sequence. This allowed me to look for holes, see the flow, how did the story move, how does a reader move through the space of the book. It was terrible, but the basic structure was created at that point. I work closely with my friend Larry Frolick, a brilliant and I’d say daring artist. He’s a writer and I admire his thinking process and his grasp of visual language. A lot of surprises were revealed to me during this process and he forced me to take a few risks in the development of the book.

From this first dummy, I then made another three or four in a similar manner, all getting more and more sophisticated as I moved along. Typography was beginning to be placed, I thought about size, cover, what happens to the book when it’s on the shelf, in your hand. I made at one point a block of wood and cut it into the size and thickness I hoped the book to be, wrapped a cover around and let it sit on my bookshelf for awhile. Soon, I made a fully formed dummy. It was huge, like a bible. Page numbers, title page, all that stuff, a real book. I had it bound professionally, and carried it with me wherever I went.

Last year, as the photographs and book finally began to take shape, they began to complement each other, I knew the shooting aspect was getting close to the end. Since the pictures were near completion, I made a committed effort to make a final dummy with a “fairly final” edit that I wanted to present to publishers. I worked with a designer named Henrietta Molinaro who helped on the sequencing and the design of the book (she is currently working with Jocelyn Bain Hogg on his latest opus). With her knowledge of constructing a book, there were a few flourishes that were added to really push the book beyond a mere collection of photographs. Stalin kept ringing in my head; I felt obliged that what I made had to be substantial.

Finally, with a very beautiful book dummy, I started meeting with publishers. Most were very moved by the project, a lot said it was really unsellable, but there was a strong response. It was at Arles in 2010 where I made the deal with Maarten, and we committed to the basic form and shape of the book that it will undertake this Fall.

In all, from my first beginning of the project to the time the book arrives on your bookshelf, I would say a good solid five years were spent with me wandering around with the question in my head “What do I want my book to be?”

How are you going about funding the project? Can you give us some realistic sense of this challenge: how were costs broken down between you and the publisher?
I think a dirty secret in book publishing today is the reality that a photographer needs to help fundraise to raise money for the book. I still don’t understand, it seems like a great business to get involved in, have someone else pay your costs! But to be serious, essentially the publisher is looking for, say, a guarantee that the book will sell a certain amount of copies. Every single publisher I spoke all quoted me the same terms and conditions, almost to an exact degree. Really surprising.

Of course things shift, but you are given a budget and you have to work within that. If you can raise more money, you get better paper, more pages, a better binding or better coverstock, whatever it is, there are costs involved and you really have to be aware of the costs. There were many things that I was surprised to learn when I first met with Teun. He went through my latest dummy and said things like, well we’ll have to move this, it needs to either be smaller by 2 cm or larger by 1cm, or else the cost rises xxx amount of Euro. This paper we cannot do, the binding has to be either this or this or this – all of it costs money. You want to save money, let’s do a soft cover. You want a hardcover book, then let’s make it smaller trim size, etc. Again, I was really glad for my architecture experience, I learned the art of budgeting and how to take a portion of the budget and put it into one or two key areas of the project. This allowed a focus on crucial aspects of the book that I wanted, I was willing to change things slightly to stay within the price range but also stay within my vision of the book.

My fundraising began just as Kickstarter and other crowd-funding programs were really gaining popularity in photography. But I did not want to go that route. You’ll see what I am offering is quite different then what is typically offered on a crowd-funding campaign. I decided to make three levels, each a different price point, Bronze, Silver and Gold. Part of the trick is to appeal to friends and family, but I also wanted to engage the collectors market as well. I looked to Radius Books and Aperture as a model to some degree, examining their limited edition sets and print structure. Granted they have powerful mailing lists, something I don’t have.

The first phase was to offer a pre-book launch, where I could have a party, invite my friends and family and keep it to those closest to me, something personal. I wanted to have an event where I could discuss the work, show the dummies, get people involved in the pain in making this project in order to then ask them to give me money! It was a good night and I ended up selling a pretty good chunk right there. Next, I have a website, interrogationbook.com, that outlines the various funding levels and also is PayPal ready (feel free to click and buy). The other two levels are for “collector events” that I will be having over the next few months. Again, personal events where I can meet and talk with potential donors. It’s always best to have a personal meeting, get to know who is buying your work and also allows them a view into the process. This is really who the Gold level was built for, but feel free to purchase.

I also am offering for the bargain price of $95, an advance copy of the book, which comes with a 5×7″ print. The book will come wrapped and packaged like the Bronze, Silver and Gold Editions, just with a smaller print. It will also be numbered and editioned so there is a “special” quality rather then just a book from Amazon or a bookstore.

Essentially, I am looking at these special editions as an investment on the part of the buyer, a truly beautiful object that will gain value over time. As you’ll see, it is not just a print and a book, but I really went to a lot of trouble to create something special and unique, and handcrafted, that only those who choose to donate can receive.

Each print comes specially packaged in a folder that the police use for their dossiers. Each archival print is stamped with a custom stamp that I made in Kiev, signed and numbered to match your book. There is an edition of 75; once these books are sold, I will not offer any more. So, an exclusivity to them. The book itself will also come in a specially handmade presentation, each one is custom and unique. the material I am using to encase the books in are old police report forms that were given to me by a friend in Russia. I have stacks of these, so each book will be totally unique. Finally, another custom wax stamp will seal the packaging. As soon as you open it, it devalues, you must buy two!

There are some mistakes I made, especially in this economic environment, but I think to date it has proven successful. The trick is constantly keeping it out there and I would choose to do this route again. Some people have purchased from me have never really “collected” any art and this was a way for them to become a part of the project and to also give them something of high quality. A few people I know have yet to open their special dossiers, proudly displaying them on their shelves. When I see that, I sense they feel proud that they were a part of making something happen but also able to get in on the ground floor of collecting photography.

This is your second book , what does it mean for you to have this work published now. What do you hope it accomplishes for you personally and professionally?
My first book was Bastard Eden, Our Chernobyl which was made as part of the book prize with photolucida. (Ed: signed copies of the book are still available at photo-eye) I tend to work on things until one day I wake up and then it speaks to me, “Don, we’re done. Let’s move on.” And that’s what happened with this work. About a year ago, I felt I really could not push it further, it reached it’s natural conclusion. And the natural conclusion was as a book.

My work is not complete unless it has a final venue. Why I struggle so much within photojournalism is that I think most of the work is stateless, it exists in magazines and papers and online, but essentially you’re at the mercy of others. We take photos, send them to the editor or our agency, and wait for a tearsheet, suddenly we are cut out of the process. Photography is so much more then the just the photograph; in fact I have never been that interested in just an image, I want something more for the years committed to a project. A book is such a beautiful, strange, wonderful thing. Everyone experiences it in their own terms. At night, on the bus, where do you read it? How does it get it read? Start to finish, flip through randomly, everyone has their own experiences. This is what I love and this is what I feel we need to do, to conceive, to shoot and to present that work, from the very first fomentation in your head to having it sit in someone’s hand, their fingerprints across the paper.

What were your influences in putting this book together, were you looking to other projects by artists or photographers?
I’m a book nerd, I am always looking at other books. But at some point you just have to drop out and not look. Raymond Depardon is a huge influence on me, he is such a crazy bookmaker I cannot keep up. Also I loved “Case History” and “Unfinished Dissertation” by Boris Mikhailov (Ed: “Case History” is currently showing at MoMA in New York City, through September 5, 2011). As objects they really are wonderful, and push the limits of bookmaking. Dayanita Singh also is a photographer I admire beyond just her prowess behind a camera. Wonderland by Jason Eskanzai is such a great book, as a book, in every form. It’s smart and intelligent, everything is as it should be. I used to travel with Depardon’s “Voyages” in my bag years ago, it felt just right. The pictures weren’t that bad either. Yutaka Takahasi’s Yoshi-e is a brilliant book – pretty much the perfect blend of photography and bookmaking.

7 Responses to “Behind the Scenes: Donald Weber’s new book Interrogations”

  1. Davin Ellicson

    This is all very interesting. I have found that shooting a project is the fun and easy part. Publishing it in a magazine or newspaper is easy too. Publishing a book though is a whole other beast. I have been working on the final editing and sequencing of two projects with a group of close peers here in New York as well as working on producing book dummies and texts and proposal packages. It’s a lot of work! People like Don, Alex Webb and Jason Eskanasi inspire us to do our best work. Needless to say, non of what I have been up to would have been possible in Bucharest. Everyone of note is in NYC. Many thanks to all who have helped me. You know who you are!

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  3. Donald Weber

    Davin;

    I have to politely disagree with you – my book or work has nothing to do with New York City. My friends and comrades who helped me in this endeavour are in the noted photographic hot-spots of Toronto, Amsterdam, Kiev and Dnepropetrovsk. The bulk of the book dummies and editing were all done in a Soviet-era apartment on Red Army Street in Kiev; the decisive intellectual and creative critiques were done with a friend in Toronto; the bulk of the final design is in Amsterdam.

    I really don’t believe NYC or London or Paris or Tokyo has anything to do with it. in fact, you’re better off inBucharest, use the limitations you have to inspire, not devour, you.

  4. Davin Ellicson

    Don, I was talking about my own current experience with trying to put a book together. I do not have the resources–photographer friends in Bucharest–who could help me with editing and sequencing etc. I have had much more luck in New York right now. That’s all I am saying. Of course you can edit a book anywhere. For me, personally, I have found more help in New York, but that’s just because I am American and know more people in New York than anywhere else.

    Many thanks for the behind the scenes look. All of this is neither here nor there. You can do a book obviously anywhere you like.

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