State Power: Donald Weber's Interrogations

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Weber’s photos from an interrogation room form the centerpiece of his new book about the use and abuse of power in Russian and the Ukraine.

In a small, bleak room in an unnamed police station in the Ukraine, a teenager accused of shoplifting clasps his hands and whimpers. A woman, arrested for prostitution, winces and shields her face, as if ducking a blow from an unseen hand. An accused car thief slouches against the wall as a gun is pressed to his head.

Donald Weber photographed these scenes as police tried to get confessions from the suspects. The photos, taken last year, form the centerpiece for his new book, Interrogations, being published this fall by Schilt Publishers. They also represent a culmination of his years exploring authoritarianism in Russia and the Ukraine and “individual resistance to state power.” He says, “I was interested in the power dynamics between who has power, who doesn’t have power, what happens when you don’t have power, the manipulations that occur on both sides.”

The interrogations afforded him an intimate view of state power in action. The police have quotas to fill, he explains. “If they could get a confession they were doing their jobs well, they wouldn’t be criticized by their bosses.” The “physical violence” he witnessed was at times “eye popping,” he says, adding that harsh methods are taught in police academies. “That to me was more terrifying. It’s not about a couple of bad guys who like to beat up people, it’s institutional violence.”

Weber had first learned about the brutal interrogation methods in 2006, while documenting the day-to-day workings of Ukrainian police, but it would take years before he could photograph one. He made a contact with a police officer who also tutored him in how the criminal world operates. This information helped Weber produce his intimate look at Russia’s society of Zek (ex-convicts).

Over the years, Weber would press his police contact for access to an interrogation. “He’d say no. I’d ask him six months later. He’d say no.” One of his biggest fears, Weber says, was that he might be identified in the photos. As Weber explains, “I wasn’t interested in his physical presence, I was interested in how his presence is manifested psychologically.” A year and a half ago, he relented, as long as Weber got the consent of each person being questioned. Each morning, Weber would wait in the police station until a suspect was brought in. “I would say generally 65 percent of the people I asked said no.”

Once the interrogation began, he remained silent, and showed no reaction to what he witnessed. “The last thing I wanted was for the police to perform for me,” he says. “At first, people were very conscious of my presence, but soon both the police and the suspects were involved in their own problems, and I was a secondary character.”

Weber observed the sometimes-curious dynamics between interrogator and interrogated. “The thief has a special role within society” in Russia and the Ukraine, earning the grudging respect of the police, Weber says. “If they follow these archaic rules, which are apparently 300 years old, things will go well. If you deviate from that system, things won’t go well.” During questioning, the car thief crossed a boundary; the officer got angry, Weber recalls. “That’s when the gun came out.” Weber notes, “I found it interesting that even in something as brutal as an interrogation there’s a system and a method to it.”

The drama of the interrogation photos represents a departure from Weber’s recent work, which has focused on landscapes that symbolize the region’s bloody, authoritarian history during communism and the rule of the tsars. In Siberia and the far east of Russia, he photographed areas that were settled as prison camps and cultivated by slaves. “The only reason people live there is they are the descendants of prisoners or prison guards.” He recently began a series of photos, called “The Last Thing They Saw.” “It’s about how the most pretty, greenest places in Russia are home to sites of execution.” Weber was inspired by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s writings about his experience as a prisoner in the Soviet gulag: “He always dreamt about the moment of his execution.”

Weber had for years planned to gather his work on Russia into a book. “A lot of photo books aren’t books, they’re just monographs,” Weber says. “I like the idea that we can take pictures and read them visually and get the same feelings that a novelist would create.” He roughed out his ideas by gluing 4x6 prints into a spiral notebook. He kept refining his edit and design until last year when, after getting advice from designer Henrietta Molinaro, he printed laser copies, had them bound together, and began showing the maquette to book publishers. At a meeting at Rencontres D’Arles, he landed a contract with Maarten Schilt, whose publishing house had produced Stanley Greene’s Black Passport and other photo books Weber admires. He was also excited to work with the publisher’s designer, Teun van der Heijden.

After he reviewed the dummy, Van der Heijden came back a week later and said the book should only contain the interrogation photos. “Maybe it was my ego,” Weber says, “but I said, Why can’t I have all this work? It took six or seven years to shoot.”  He soon got over it, he says. He now sees his years of work on the people and landscapes of the region as “a progression that lead me to the place where I could do the interrogation work.”

That’s now how the book will present his earlier photos: as a prologue. The book begins with quiet landscapes, portraits and images of domestic scenes, showing the land and the society the characters in the interrogation photos came from. The book’s third and final chapter is written by Larry Frolick, Weber’s collaborator on Bastard Eden, Our Chernobyl, their 2008 book.

To raise the money to pay for the book’s production (about $12,000 to $14,000 Euro), Weber set up a Web site to sell limited edition prints and a special edition of Interrogations: a copy that Weber has signed, numbered, stamped, wrapped by hand in a police form found in a Ukraine police station, and then sealed with a wax seal he had custom made. (“The idea is that once you break the wax seal, it loses its value, so you have to buy two,” he says.) By mid-summer, Weber says, he was three quarters of the way towards his goal.

The special edition packages begin at $95, and go up to $1,000, depending on the size of the print selected. Rather than trying to raise many small donations from lots of funders (what Weber calls the “give $10, get a postcard” model seen on Kickstarter), he was inspired by Aperture, Radius Books and other publishers who sell a limited number of very expensive prints to underwrite their costs.

Interrogations, Weber says, “means a lot to me. I want to impart to people who buy the book that I invested years in it. I appreciate their helping me with the work, and I want them to receive something unique.”

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