This work stopped me cold the first time I saw it. It looked terrifyingly real, but how could it be? Are some of these people being forced to write confessions while loaded guns are pressed into their heads? It must have been staged. But soon I came to realize that these are indeed real photographs of real interrogations of suspected criminals in Ukraine.
Canadian photojournalist Donald Weber first went to Ukraine during the Orange Revolution of 2004, on assignment. Following that first trip, he soon returned, and spent the next six years in Russia and Ukraine trying to photograph contemporary life, and its hardships, as well as the vestiges of a still-powerful, hidden system.
Interrogations is the result of his personal quest to uncover the hidden meaning of private, unpleasant encounters with unrestricted Power. It is a simple, elegant book that sears itself into your memory.
After I saw the book, Weber and I talked about this project in person, and we continued an email correspondence. What follows is an edit of his words, describing this project, and how he got such intimate access to such horrifying scenes, and what understanding he came away with:
I was lucky: on my very first trip to Ukraine during the Orange Revolution, I came across a fellow who became a friend and a fixer. Through him, I made contacts within the police services. It was actually over many years that the three of us (me, my “cultural guide”, and the police) established a relationship of trust to the point that they would consider allowing me to photograph the police interrogation process.
The next challenge was to get permission from each of the people about to be interrogated for me to make photographs during that ordeal. Only about 20 percent of those people agreed to be photographed. So, after years of planning, it took further years to make this series of photographs.
I remember first being shocked at some of the methods, but my friend said to me, “Don, you must understand that these are their methods of policing, this is how they’re taught.” He then told me a horrifying story of his own arrest and subsequent interrogation while working in St. Petersburg almost 20 years earlier; this helped me understand the cultural and democratic differences in methods of policing.
The police I worked with were respected in their departments; they rose through the ranks and did the job required. I have my personal feelings of how and what they do, but then as a photographer I think I’ve said enough about that with my work.
What I strongly believe is that this is not a rogue set of cops; this is standard practice. It is what it is. It’s the utter terror of a wayward bureaucracy.
There is a difference between specific situations and more general or universal conditions. This work is not about Ukraine or Russia or even the former Soviet Union, but instead a way to see the modern State as a primitive and sacrificial rite of unnamed Power.
I came to understand that the State operates (and not just an ex-Soviet state) as a parallel and privileged state within a political system, operating under its own rules, sanctions, rewards and values. It can simply and nimbly shift its competitive goals, and take over the reigns of power in any sudden political vacuum, adapting and improvising tactics as needed.
My work — present and future — anticipates historical reckoning, and aims for an anthropology of Power.
My study of the gestures of Power invokes the larger question of supposed democratic nations and their vast power to quell the citizenry’s instincts to achieve a more conscious society.
Donald Weber is a thoughtful man, and a brave and talented photographer. I highly recommend this book.
— Jim Casper
by Donald Weber
Publisher: Schilt Publishing
Paperback: 176 pages