1) Donald, you trained as an architect in the Netherlands before working as a photographer. What provoked that transition, and do you think architecture, if at all, has influenced your photographic practice?

Actually, I went to art school in Toronto, Canada – I only moved to the Netherlands in late 2015, and I lived here for a few years in the late-90s (1996 – 1998) when I worked for Rem Koolhaas in Rotterdam. Between 1998 – 2001 I was working on architecture at a small firm in Toronto. However, in regards to your question, yes, I do believe that architecture has completely influenced my photography. At first, I wanted to push as far away as possible the architectural experience I had, but I started to realize that photography is also very much a spatial medium, that there are questions of “then and now” but also “here and here.” This spatial dimension is quite critical in photography, not just in how we view the world, what we see, but in how it shapes our understanding of events that occur. It also drives relationships to photographs and the in-between moments of sequencing and editing, the spatial constructions of a diverse audience that engages in your work and how we are able to leap not just in our imaginations, but also across vast geographies to understand the world at large.

Donald Weber, From Bastard Eden, Our Chernobyl

2) Looking through your bio on your website, you have no mention of a photography education? (Correct me if I’m wrong) Has all of your practice been self-taught and do you think the university pathway is the correct way to learn photography? What do you think about the photography industry?

In fact, I did study at an art school in Toronto. While it wasn’t a photography program per se, I was deeply trained in art and visual culture, ever since I was a teenager. Upon my graduation, I embarked on an aborted architecture career, but what I learned in these five years is still with me today. I believe that you have to experience the world and be able to comprehend it visually, to not just respond in a visual manner but to also engage with what happens around you through a comprehension of the visible.

Art and design and architecture are all practices that are embedded in the politics of making and the way to manifest the invisible into the visible. University education in photography can be incredibly beneficial; I teach currently at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague in both the BA and MA programs. What we strive to do is provide a critical education – meaning, looking into the very institutions and politics that influence photography, but also looking reflexively at yourself to help comprehend what you can do and how you do it as a visually engaged artist or photographer. It’s about the capacity to experiment, to have time to search and explore within a safe environment and to be exposed to all kinds of things where the only stakes really are just the grades that get issued at the end of the year.

As for the industry, I think it’s a terrible word, and I have written a lot about its ill effects. My main critique of photography is largely related to its own disciplinary nature, and how regimes of value construction, awards and capitalization have such outsized influence on the practice.

I see a discipline where students and young photographers are largely trained instead of educated, where the systems of awards and festivals in which professionals participate are significantly shaping their understanding about what is considered “good photography.” Amongst all this, the image acts as a mechanism for the ideological reproduction of the status quo, and it becomes harder and harder to expand the possibilities and relevance of photography.

Donald Weber, From Bastard Eden, Our Chernoby
Donald Weber, From Bastard Eden, Our Chernoby

3) Let’s talk about your works from Ukraine, specifically the acclaimed Bastard Eden, Our Chernobyl and Interrogations. In several sources online, you explain how you heard about Chernobyl. It was 1986 and you were bedridden with Pneumonia and heard about Chernobyl on the Radio. When you heard about it, the Soviet Union existed, but when you visited, it didn’t. Did this make the narrative or work difficult in any way?

No, because it’s a lingering place and I was never interested in the immediate news value of the place. I wanted to know the other stories that were forgotten by the media, those stories that exist not as a part of the dominant narrative, but those at the edges, that get hidden or forbidden for whatever reason. I do believe that photography has contributed to this domination of narrative (we can go back decades and see photography in collusion with power structures, such as police, surveillance, archival practices, forms of colonial exploration and documentation, etc.) But it can also be a way to expose these narratives and reveal that others are there and alive and existing; the world is fraught with a multiplicity of voices, and this is what I understood about Chernobyl. It’s just what ‘they’ want us to see, but rather, can I see it myself?

Donald Weber, From Bastard Eden, Our Chernoby
Donald Weber, Interrogations

5) Your project, Interrogations, based in Ukraine and Russia is an extraordinary body of work which was about a post-soviet authority in Ukraine and Russia. The text mentions policemen, thugs, working girls and more. The images are powerful and emotive, even one with a gun to a man’s head. How did you get access to the people in the work and how did you feel in that situation? Did you tell the subjects how to look or act in any way?

This took many, many years of building up a relationship and a presence in a small town in Eastern Ukraine. By the time I even started to photograph in the police station, I had become known as “the photographer” as I had actually lived in that town, went to the same places they did, ate the same food and did the same activities. I tried to be as open and honest as possible about my intentions, and why I wanted to make this work. It wasn’t until 2010 when finally someone said: “Okay – why didn’t you say this years before!?” But I also know the work would not have been as strong as it is without going through this process of really trying to understand what I wanted to do – what does it mean to me? Why should I do this? Why should anyway care – do I? These kinds of questions must be asked by the photographer especially when working in such difficult circumstances. Otherwise, it’s just a bravura performance and that’s it. In all, I spent ten years living and working in Ukraine – I still go back to this day. It is a full-on commitment that is deeply suffused with my being and identity today.

Donald Weber, Interrogations

6) Do you ever get scared in these situations or feel uneasy? You have thrown yourself into some pretty dangerous places over the years?

I try to be informed, and I try to take a few risks and put myself out there, but I am not stupid and I do have a cowardly streak in me which I believe means my work is sensitive to the needs of the person(s) being photographed; it’s their story, not mine, so any thrill-seeking immediately places you in the power position, it’s your story at this point. However, I also believe that a photographer must embed themselves into the lives of those who have something to say, whose stories you want to share. Become at their level; at times this may mean some difficult situations.

7) Has the recent HBO series of Chernobyl made you think about returning to the topic and what did you think of the show?

I always think about Chernobyl, it’s a very early memory I have that has so permeated my photographic life. For fifteen years I was involved in these stories, and the broader themes – power, materialism, erasure of fringe stories, etc… all come from Chernobyl. I have also worked in other parts of radioactive Ukraine (for a story called Into the Half-Life, about a uranium-enriching town where the majority of residents are sick with cancers), and then in Fukushima. I was one of the very first photographers into their Exclusion Zone just a few days after the earthquake. This was a trilogy of works that I called ‘Post Atomic.’ Second, to this, I also completed small stories in and around Chernobyl. As for the miniseries, I am glad it is getting attention and I think the series creator got the story right – it’s a system built on lies that resist the truth. It is one of a bureaucracy that has no accountability, where the frailty of human manoeuvring for positions of power and control ultimately leads to reckless decisions by cowards.

Donald Weber, Interrogations

8) You were part of an episode of Picture Perfect that was featured on Vice, when you visited Fukushima in Japan after the Nuclear Accident. What was your experience of taking photos at essentially, the modern-day Chernobyl with a film crew by your side?

The film crew is what allowed me to be there! Without them, the finances would’ve been impossible. SO they made that happen and I am grateful for their support. What we were able to do is prove that yes, there is an Exclusion Zone, and yes, there are still dead bodies populated. The emergency spokesperson insisted that the Exclusion Zone was evacuated of all its bodies; we were able to prove that there were more and notify the correct authorities. The reason I wanted to go was that I had spent so much time in Chernobyl inside the Zone and understood what it could look like; but I also wanted to know – what would Pripyat be like in the days following the evacuation? Japan showed me what it would have looked like.

9) What was the outcome of the work in Japan at Fukushima, it isn’t visible on your website?

I had quite a few magazines publish this work, and I did start a longer-term project, but then my latest work, War Sand, took my attention to me. What I made in Fukushima I was proud of; I ended up making three separate visits over the course of two years; I watched as the Zone unfolded and morphed and adapted ts appearances from one of an abandoned landscape of memories and vacant ghosts, to one where a technocratic regime started to repopulate those spaces. Maybe someday I will revisit this work!

Donald Weber - Fukushima Nuclear Accident, 2011
Donald Weber - Fukushima Nuclear Accident, 2011

10) What did it take to get your books published? Was it a difficult task and how were you treated?

I always make dummies, constantly adding and moving and cutting and glueing pictures into sequences. With each subsequent visit, the work gets more and more developed and it also helps me understand what I am trying to say, what I see, and how I can develop it further. In turn, I start to see in my head the work itself “unfold” as if it’s a book or a very slow movie. Therefore, by the time I am ready to pitch to a publisher, the idea of the book is there, the story I want to tell and how I want to tell it is present.

Of course, it can be difficult to publish, especially today when publishers are actually expecting you to do the work they once did, such as funding! So not only do you have to find your own work, you have to fund the publisher too! This is such an asinine system, and this is why you see a preponderance of contests and prizes that all lead to what they call “exposure” or some such inanity that is really meaningless. It is so hard nowadays for a photographer to share their work in the format that they feel suits best. Yes, we have digital presences, but for me, why I choose to work in book format is that it still has the power to grab someone to participate in the story that is being told. It’s a question of evidence that needs interpretation by an audience.

11) Do you solely make a living from photography, or do you work on the side?

I am university professor at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, I also make my own projects but for the past few years, I have refused to do any assignments (in fact, many people stopped calling me anyway as I was a terrible assignment photographer). Plus, I am kind of stubborn and selfish; I just want to make the work that interests me. By teaching, I am able to have the freedom of artistic choice and do only what I want. Second, teaching keeps me current and engaged and especially challenged by students. As we recently started a new Master program, called Photography & Society, I also get to conceptually work with photography to help contribute and shape photography into a way that I see as more sustainable and fair. In Photography & Society, we do not see the role of photographer as submissive to market forces, but rather we want students to come with determination to impact the world in ways that would make it a more just place, while at the same time being equipped with the knowledge, skills and understanding that enable the photographer to do so.

Donald Weber - Fukushima Nuclear Accident, 2011
Donald Weber - Fukushima Nuclear Accident, 2011
Donald Weber - Fukushima Nuclear Accident, 2011
Donald Weber - Fukushima Nuclear Accident, 2011

12) After your latest book War Sands, focused on the beaches of D-Day, what’s next?

I just started a PhD so I am focused on that. I am thinking of a concept I term as geo-aesthetics, which is really about understanding how photography can be used as a way to investigate or inquire into large geopolitical systems that affect all of us on earth. New times require new ways of seeing.

13) Lastly, what advice would you give to young photographers?

Please just go out and make something. Ignore “the industry,” it’s a pile of (insert bad words here) anyway. Think of photography as an amateur would that is, do what you love. Seek the meaning because you want to do this, and lastly, be present, be there and just show up.

Donald Weber

Bio: Weber is the author of four books. His first, Bastard Eden, Our Chernobyl, won the photolucida Book Prize and asked a simple question: what is daily life actually like, in a post-atomic world? Interrogations, about post-Soviet authority in Ukraine and Russia, has gone on to much acclaim; it was selected to be included in Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s seminal ‘The Photobook: A History, Volume III.’ Barricade: The EuroMaidan Revolt, is about the smoking language of revolution, made in collaboration with Ukrainian photographer Arthur Bondar. His latest, War Sand, tells the story of D-Day, from myth to micron.

He is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lange-Taylor Prize, the Duke and Duchess of York Prize, two World Press Photo Awards and was a finalist for the prestigious Scotiabank Photography Prize.

His diverse photography projects have been exhibited as installations, exhibitions and screenings at festivals and galleries worldwide including the United Nations, Museum of the Army at Les Invalides in Paris, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Portland Museum of Art, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum. Weber is noted for his teaching, public presentations and workshops. He has three times been named ‘master’ for World Press Photo’s Joop Swart Masterclass and chaired the Documentary category of the World Press Photo Awards, 2015.

He is represented by Circuit Gallery in Toronto and is on the faculty of the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, The Netherlands in the Fine Art and Photography departments.

Donald Weber Photographer

http://donaldweber.com/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/donaldweber/

Interview by Collective Founder and Owner, Samuel Fradley

If you enjoyed this interview, check out another Collective interview with Photographer Guy Moreton: https://thesouthwestcollective.co.uk/guy-moreton-discusses-landscape-thought-and-his-methods-behind-picture-taking/