Before taking up photography, Donald Weber trained as an architect and worked with Rem Koolhaas in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Weber is the author of three photography books. Interrogations, which looks at post-Soviet authority in Ukraine and Russia, has gone on to much acclaim; it was selected to be included in Martin Parr’s and Gerry Badger’s seminal The Photobook: A History, Volume III.
Among his numerous awards and fellowships are a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lange-Taylor Prize, the Duke and Duchess of York Prize, and two World Press Photo Awards. His work was also shortlisted for the prestigious Scotiabank Photography Prize.
Weber’s diverse photography projects have been exhibited as installations, exhibitions, and screenings at festivals and galleries worldwide.
Currently Don is working on his next project, War Sand, about historic sacrifice and the meaning of war in our modern world. He is represented by Circuit Gallery in Toronto.
What would you like to be known for?
kind, genuine, and tried to find some meaning in this world.
You studied architecture, why were you drawn to photography and in particular documentary?
I actually always wanted to be a photojournalist, but when I was in my final year of high school and preparing to apply to university, I asked my photography teacher for advice on which photo program would best suit me. His answer? “Neither. You suck as a photographer.” True quote, by the way. So, that day I went home and put my camera away, not to be picked up again for another decade. Architecture was essentially a fallback, an alternate plan for a future I thought I knew, but didn’t.rnrnAs to why am I a documentarian, it’s easy. In 1984, when I was 11, I was driving with my father when we passed by an ice hockey arena with a sign out front welcoming players from the Soviet Union. I read the sign, but thought nothing of it. My father leaned over, and whispered: “Those people don’t have any butter.” I had no idea why he whispered. We were alone in the car.rnrnI recall thinking, what a stupid thing to say. Perhaps my father wasn’t the all-knowing dad he had been until that point. But it made me ask a simple question, something I still frequently invoke: “Why?” Why wouldn’t they have any butter? Who doesn’t have butter? There must be reasons. So I set out to find these reasons. Thirty years later, I am still trying to figure this out.
Many people know of you from the work Interrogations, and have questioned whether it is fictional or documentary. How do you respond?
Many people question this? I am not so sure, in fact in general I think people understand the inherent theme of Interrogations, which essentially seeks to show the brutality and helplessness that undergirds almost all societies. French philosopher Louis Althusser famously placed the moment we recognize our subservience to the authority of a state in a street scene where one is confronted by a police officer. The officer, writes Althusser, shouts: “‘Hey, you there!’ Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place on the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject.”rnrnAll of us understand subjugation, and therefore I think most people respond to this innate human emotion, which I usually stress.
You are the photoeditor of Raw View magazine, what kind of photography do you feel an emotional connection with?
Work that is deeply personal to the creator, I don’t care how they do it, it just has to have utter connection to the photographer. I know immediately when a photographer believes in their work, ultimate meaning is a profound thing that can never be determined, but it can be expressed, and that for me is the strongest work.
You have spent years working in Ukraine - what's the most essential sentence or phrase that you would teach your colleagues?
Not to confuse “pizdets” ( a terrible swear word, like fucking shit) with “pizdato,” the opposite of fucking shit, more like “This is so amazingly incredible.” And I definitely used pizdets and pizdato on equal occasion in Ukraine.
Can you tell us about the most challenging situation you have had to overcome in your career?
Yes – my career! Even that word is incredibly complex – career. It implies not just today, tomorrow or even the further future, but your entire arc of being a creative professional. To me, it’s always a challenge to consistently move forward, build upon what I have learned, discard what blocks me and mount the next step. Being a professional photographer is like the old school Atari video game ‘Frogger,’ one must try to cross the busy highway without getting crushed under the wheels of speeding, and maniac drivers. Dodging, jumping, waiting, and anticipating the next move. At times you jump forward, at times you’re thrown back. Ultimately, it’s about the progression forward, accepting those setbacks that guide you to the grander dream of getting to the other side.
What do you refuse to see?
I am absolutely terrified of large manmade structures underwater. I could never be a scuba diver, let alone an underwater photographer swimming around the bottoms of large ships, oil rigs and other unnatural structures in the sea. Terribly frightening and I hope to never see this in my life.
If you had one night and one bottle of vodka - who would share it with and where?
I’d go back to Ukraine and try to find Viktor, a man of my exact age and a subject of many of my photos. He is a great storyteller, a true raconteur. Viktor taught me the value and meaning of narrative, that in order to measure our humanity we need to make sense of our experiences, and the only way we can do that is to tell stories. I’d sit up all night eating potatoes and drinking vodka with him, indulging and anticipating new lessons he could share with me. Are you there, Viktor?
Which three words hold the most meaning to you?
Mom, dad, sister.