Experience

Donald Weber: “The most important factor in my career is independence”

Two-time winner of World Press Photo Donald Weber on the photographer's role, the difference between the Russians and Ukrainians and a new project.

Donald Weber profile photo
41 years oldDonald Weber,

Prior to photography, Donald Weber originally trained as an architect and worked with urban theorist Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. He freelanced for the international press in places as diverse as Africa, Eastern Europe, Russia and South America before taking aim at the bigger picture: the growth of insoluble World Power. He has devoted himself to the study of how Power deploys an all-encompassing theater for its subjects; what he records is its secret collaboration with both masters and victims.

You collaborated with mass media principals worldwide, but you covered the protests in Kyiv for Vice, a rather specific youth media. Why?

I didn’t cover it for anybody, I went there on my own dime and for own purposes. In fact I turned down many assignments as assignments do not interest me, in fact they distract from the task at hand. Ukraine is personal to me, and the only way I can do photography is engaging in something with meaning.

I have a long relationship with Vice. Some of their journalism is shit, but some of it is great. I wanted to have some of the work from Kiev shown to the greater public but not in a magazine or something more “legacy” oriented. Vice to me is a perfect vehicle to engage with a huge audience yet in a simple, very direct and specific way.

Where are you located now and what are you up to?

Los Angeles. Enjoying the sun. Working on a project about D-Day in Normandy, a cosmic and geological search for the meaning of war, collaborating with a physicist.


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Once you said that Ukraine always seemed to you “a silent stranger, sitting quietly in the corner”. We wonder whether your attitude has changed.

No, except unfortunately there’s now a very loud, drunken idiot hovering over him and spilling vodka over this silent stranger who doesn’t now what to do.

You first came to Ukraine during the Orange Revolution, wanting to understand what motivates people, and the search for answers took years. Did your attitudes and concerns change? What kind of responses did you receive? And what new questions did you get?

I never answered any questions, thankfully. I made progress in discovering new questions and new perplexities and adding a deeper and more complex relationship with Ukraine and Russia. The more I strove to understand, the more I didn’t understand. In the end, I gave up trying to figure it all out and just made a personal journey and used these experiences to relate to the country.

Crossing the border from Canada to USA was always very pronounced — things were just bigger, faster, more glamourous, more exciting.

People generally were well receptive of the work in Ukraine — they understand the conceptual thinking behind it and the relationship of themselves within the work. The idea was to make a universal statement about authority and power — at first just isolated to Russia and Ukraine, but as I progressed on the photographs and book, the issue became universal. The work has been presented in Belgrade, Belfast, Canada, the USA, Netherlands and China — every place has their own meaning attached to the work and that’s what I find successful in photography — I create a framework and you, the viewer, adapt the framework to suit whatever ideas, olitics, moods, whatever, within the book. Every human has personal experince, the book allows you to “interrogate” yourself and your idea of meaning.

In one interview you said that you came to work in Russia, because you felt like a Russophile. Do you feel a difference between Russians and Ukrainians, and could you name a few of the main differences and peculiarities?

Oh yes! Ukrainians are funnier, less negative and generally a lighter disposition. Russians were always mysterious to me, perplexing and I appreciated their honesty and forthright attitude. I always knew when I was back in Ukraine whenever I would take the train between Moscow and Kiev (besides the border guards!) the air was just lighter to me, a burden not so burdensome as I felt in Russia. I guess it was similar to the time I was a boy. My family and I would drive to Florida every winter from Canada, about a two day drive. Crossing the border from Canada to USA was always very pronounced — things were just bigger, faster, more glamourous, more exciting. A whirl and rush of energy that was very very intoxicating, a foreign place that was so close yet so far. But coming back across the border a few weeks later, I always felt relief. Canada was quiet, cleaner, gentler. The bigness of America, the grandeur, the brashness, was amazing for two weeks, but I always knew, crossing the border back into home, where I really belonged. And this is how I felt coming from Russia into Ukraine and why I ended up living in Ukraine and not Russia; I felt at home, arrived, accepted.


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There are a great many reporters interested in the spirit of the former Soviet Union. What attracts you to this topic? Are there any colleagues whose works you find interesting? What can you say about Jonas Bendiksen’s photos? Could you recommend any photographers perhaps some who influenced your own work?

Luc Delahaye of course made an amazing work about 90’s Russia which was very profound but I realized it’s not a timeless piece; it’s very much of that era, an era that thankfully is long gone, but the colours, the tones, the distance, the epic scale of the book, still is highly influential to me. I realized then and there that photography was not a collection of images but instead together they have to construct meaning and that the reader or viewer is an integral key to the story. It’s beyond mere photographs the object itself, the sequence and flow and thought behind the pictures and the way they’re presented — we are authors, not photographers.

There are many many many photographers working in this part of the world, stopped looking. I don’t look at much photography now because I am not necessarily interested in pictures anymore per se, but I am really interested in a great story, an epic of adventure and ideas and character. So I read books, a lot. Books that inspired me were White Guard, Kolyma Tales, Vasily Grosman, and the novel We.

I love Sergei Bratkov, holy fuck! Pardon my swearing, but that’s the only way to declare your affection for his work.

Sasha Chekmenev is the best photographer in Ukraine (Russia too).


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In the lead-in to your series with Molotov cocktails, you noted that the main weapon of the protesters in Kiev was fire. At the same time there was no fire in your photos, and because of this, they stand out from the mass of reportage shots of Maidan. Was that your main idea — to move away from the ordinary? Or did another idea lead you to such an approach?

There were so many photographers there, hundreds and hundreds. Some of them were very good. Most of them took the same photos. Over and over. What can I do? I was there on my own, I had no directive from somebody over a phone line, I could do what I want — which is why I rarely take assignments, the most important factor in my photography career is independence and freedom. Freedom brings opportunity, opportunity makes your future. And so I was free to roam and to look and not rush and find wifi and please the bosses in NYC or Paris or London with pictures of flames, I could photograph the reality, what I saw and from my perspective. It could be wrong it could be right, I don’t really care — what I care about is being engaged in a place and allowing that place to speak through me with photographs. Why Molotovs? I shot many things, I had a loose framework and structure of what I was going for, and the simple beauty, simplicity and complexity of the bottles was really striking. These tiny little things with rags, fished out of garbage cans, are essentially defeating the police? Amazing. It didn’t take long to shoot, within an hour I had gathered the bottles, photographed them and that was it. Later I changed the background to fit my vision, I knew in my head what I was trying to portray.

Are you interested in the fates of your characters? For example, the series of photographs from the interrogation room was very resonant. Do you know how it has affected those cops?

The cops, to my dismay, were professional and doing their job. And what I mean by that was, a good friend who helped me immensely on this project and most of my work, said to me: “You come from Canada. Your police methods are not ours. These are trained cops – but trained the way Ukraine wants them to be.” That to me was disheartening but then that’s what this project is all about – corrupted systems that rot entire psyches. Which leads me to have total understanding of what happened with the EuroMaidan movement, all of it, from start to finish. I am not surprised at all.

I try to maintain contact with people I meet and people I photograph, but look through our personal history, how many relationships do we maintain? How many can we? There are so many people that have moved me on profound levels that they’ll always stay within me, perhaps not in a physical form, but our spirits have history. I hope they remember me too.

Photographers are often asked if there were any situations in their career when they wanted to leave their cameras and intervene in what was happening, in order to stop the violence. Have you ever encountered such moments and what did you do?

I put my cameras down! I am not a war photographer, I don’t like it and I don’t see the need for it — some of the best reporting about EuroMaidan came from local people, not the foreigners. Foreigners come in with preconceived notions about what they’ll see and do whatever they can to fit that vision. For me, it’s about having a sensibility of the place, look for subtelty and nuance and allow those who are experts in their community convey the realities of daily reporting. I want to be more like a novelist, I don’t care about fiction what I care about is communicating something about something to somebody!

I bought a cheap camera, and I loved it. I loved the feel of it in my hands, I loved the meandering and the wandering and the heightened sensitivity it allowed me.

In the past, your father persuaded you not to devote yourself to photography. You put the camera away for 10 years. What made you take it back?
It wasn’t my father but my high school photography teacher. In fact, my father has always been supportive of my pursuits. I reengaged with photography because when I was 25 I was living in Europe and I wanted the memories, pictures are a good source of remembrance. So I bought a cheap camera, and I loved it. I loved the feel of it in my hands, I loved the meandering and the wandering and the heightened sensitivity it allowed me. I also came to Moscow in 1995 expressly just to take pictures while on a vacation from my job as an architect. I had my camera there and went nuts for the chaos of the city — I thought — can I do this for a living? Do people actually do this for a living?

How did you find a job being a freelancer? And how long did it take you to get orders from The New York Times, Time, Spiegel, etc.?

I quit my architecture job and saved enough money for a year. Over that year, I took pictures and developed a portfolio. I then got an internship at a tabloid newspaper in Toronto, called the Toronto Sun. For 6 months, I photographed car crashes, murder scenes, sports, topless girls. All the grea tabloid stuff. From there, I moved up and started freelancing for the best paper in Canada, the Globe & Mail While there, I learned my craft and became comfortable with my skills as a photographer and what I could do what it allowed me to do. My strengths, my weaknesses. From there, calls would come in from New York, Paris, Hamburg, etc., looking for a good local freelancer. Usually my name was passed on. That’s how my relationship with Stern and the NY Times began, I was a local freelancer for them. Soon, I began working more for the foreign press in Canada then I did for the local press. I was the go to person in Canada and soon was traveling the country for many clients. I did this for a few years, built up relationships with the editors from the publications and when I was ready to move to Moscow, it was easy — they knew me, they trusted me, they knew I was a professional. it was easy to get work, because I put the time and effort into building relationships and friendships over a number of years.

Did the WPP award affect your work? Did it bring new orders? Did it change your attitude to your photos? Finally, did it allow you to increase your prices?

No, no way! Prices don’t change regardless who you are. WPP gave me recognition and the quick route to credibility — and when I am with young students and they piss me off, I shout in my head — well, how many WPP’s do you have? I have two! So shut up!!! Well, not really, it’s a contest and that’s it. My ego feels really good, it’s nice for an audience of your peers to say “Well done, Don”. We all want a pat on the back and that’s what it is, when you’re down you can say, ok, at least I took one good picture.

What equipment do you usually use? What camera and optics?

5D (yes, the original) 24 and 35 prime.

Would you be so kind to show 2-3 your favourite shots and say some words about them?

I actually don’t like this photo at all, but it’s one of my most recognizable. It won me my first WPP in 2005, when I was pretty new to all this stuff. I had it hidden away and a friend pulled out and said this one! this is a great photo! To me it’s everything I don’t like in photography — too “photographic” for my liking — decisive moment. well composed, technically not so good (blown highlights, I was drunk) but what I do love about it, is the guy, Viktor. I met him a year previous to this picture in Chernobyl on my first visit to Ukraine. Such an amazing character, such a funny and beautiful storyteller. He was sad though, there was a real sense of loss to him. We were exactly the same age and we bonded over that — I thought, shit, if I was born here this would be me. And if he was born in my place, he would be me. So, this engagement with people I really love, stories are the best thing to hear and what drives me to take pictures.


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This is part of my new project. I love this photo because it was the first time in a few years where I felt totally free, and happy and no pressure whatsoever to make a photo. I was just in a place that physically spoke to me, I felt a connection with the place and that is what motivates me, a connection to where I am. This work (like most of what I do) was made using my own money — so I was my own client. Freedom is the most important thing to have as a photographer, you’re free to make the work you need to make.

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