Interview by Colin Pantal
A few years ago I taught a group of Russians from Moscow. It didn’t matter what their politics were, whether they loved Putin or hated him, whether they thought Estonia should be bombed into the stone-age or not; they were all unanimous on one thing – head 50 miles outside of Moscow and you were in a different country where things would only get worse, where alcohol was the only refuge and where hope had deigned to tread since the invention of fire.
I think of their descriptions when I see the pictures of Donald Weber – all rough and bleak, a kind of Winterreise without the lyrical edge, they have the sentiments of what I imagine a Siberian in October must feel with the winter ahead.
Weber’s latest series is Interrogations (in the current issue of the BJP). It’s portraits of petty criminals confessing in police interrogation rooms – where they don’t have the good cop, bad cop routine but the “bad cop, really bad cop” routine. Interrogations is special, a case of the photographer distancing himself from the subjects at hand, and having difficulty doing so. Maybe the project raises questions of complicity – on the part of us, the viewers, Weber and the police and subjects themselves. So with that in mind, I put a few questions to Donald which he was kind enough to answer.
How did you gain access to the interrogation room?
I’ve known the major of the deparment for five years now. We’ve worked together since I first started travelling there. Always knew it was a project I wanted to photograph, but also knew it was one of the most difficult places to see, this is about as close as you can get in the police procedure.
What were you photographing? When did you choose to photograph?
Solzhenitsyn talked about the moment of recognition, he always wondered during his execution what he would look at, would he look up at the sky and look for a bird, or would he look down at the ground, head bowed? It’s about a moment of recognition, once that flicker of acceptance occurs, things undoubtedly change. So I was looking for these moments, that passage from knowing what was once will never be again.
You have mentioned the “moral communion” you had with your subjects? What was that “moral communion”? Did you ever intervene in the process, were you ever referred to or spoken to in the process?
The process was about a four month struggle to become completely disengaged from all sides – from me as the photographer in the room, from the interrogators to the interrogated. At first I rarely photographed, I discovered the police were actually holding back and behaving themselves; I thought for sure they’d be extra violent. I didn’t want to see either of this, but the process itself. I have a very high level of patience, I would just sit there from 9am in the morning to the evening, and just wait. I went days without actually taking pictures. It’s a game of chicken, and I always flinch last. In time, the police would just give up on trying to “perform” and just go about their jobs, which allowed me to do mine. It took a few months, but we got it. I saw some very terrible things and was quite disturbed by the whole process, still am, but I believe I am not a judge of their crimes nor of the methods. I am not there to intervene in the process, that would be a betrayal of my years of trust built up with the police. The work formed in this manner because I was not interested in the physical violence, but the psychological violence that we as humans seem to have a special affinity for.
You said you found the process “morally repugnant”? In what ways? How do you reconcile that with the project?
Well watching the methods was not pleasant. Humiliation, violence, degradation. How could you not be repulsed? But the reasons I was there were not for judging them, but was to actually show something very special in the terms of the secrecy of the act. I made a special document precisely because it was about the ‘absence of the void,’ that it showed humans at their most vulnerable and most cruel. This series could easily be judged along the same lines as a war photographer that constantly gets criticized for not doing anything, for not jumping into the fray. What I saw was a process; we may not enjoy or agree with this process, but it’s a process that has a very long history in humanity – confession.
Do you think your documentation made you complicit in the interrogations?
Not at all. In fact the person who is complicit in the interrogations is you, the viewer, and that was the point.
Interrogations by Donald Weber