PDN's 30 2008: Donald Weber

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In Donald Weber's world, lines are crossed every day. He has immersed himself in what he calls the "thick reality" of Ukrainian gang bosses, Russian criminal life and, in his portrait series called "Zek: In The Prisons of the East," Russian prisoners. "I like people and places that have a sense of friction or danger, a forebodingness to them," he says. "These people are not mere humans," he says.

In the Zek portraits, prisoners—all shirtless and tattooed—display their personal histories and resumes inked on bare skin. Gaining the trust of these subjects wasn't easy, Weber says. "I put a lot of energy into making a trust and bond with my subjects that I don't think that they want to see me harmed—my well-being is their well-being."

As a child in Toronto, Weber was fascinated with Soviet life, culture and cosmonauts. Though he always wanted to be involved in photojournalism, there were obstacles—including an unsupportive photo teacher and an F on his Robert Capa book report. He embarked on a promising architectural career, working for visionary architect Rem Koolhaas. In 2000, his plan to escape that job on a year-long motorbike ride across Africa ended when he crashed the bike. After the accident, he enrolled in a photo-journalism course, and eventually began shooting stories for the Toronto Sun and The Globe and Mail. In 2004, he traveled to the Ukraine, deciding to remain in the place that had for so long captivated him.

Awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2007 to continue his work in Russia, he has been able to pursue stories ranging from Russia's new aristocrats to a personal project on Chernobyl, earning him publication with Newsweek, Time, Portfolio, Médecins and The Globe and Mail. Recently invited to join the VII Network, Weber continues to work on the "Zek" series, introducing natural additions like female convicts and "Natashas" (prostitutes).

Coming to terms with the harshness of his chosen subjects took time, as Weber contemplated his role in the world he's chosen: "There are times when I have witnessed beatings and ruthlessness from everyone around me and wondered, 'Is it because of me? Am I the conductor?'" he asks. "It took time to reckon that what they do is what they do."

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