Photographic practice, in particular the documentary and photojournalistic veins of the medium, continues to raise moral questions about the passive, voyeuristic tactics that photographers must employ to create their images. Donald Weber's Interrogations can be seen as a comment on a relationship catalysed by power - in this case alleged criminals and their interrogators. Weber waited five years to gain access to a police interrogation room and its criminal suspects in Russia and Ukraine. While at first his presence in the room certainly affected the behaviour of the police, they slowly became at ease with him and his camera.
Mirroring the wallpaper of the main interrogation room - the silent witness to these often violent extractions of guilt - the book is bound in the same nauseous pink pattern. Interrogations begins with a solemn, documentary-style prologue that feels much like a wandering diary. The landscapes feel desolate and the people deprived. These initial images reflect Weber's time in Russia and Ukraine prior to the creation of his Interrogations series. They provide a little evidence as to why some there turn to crime –a mostly poor society, little infrastructure and few employment prospects.
The claustrophobic spaces that make up the interrogation rooms feature prostitutes, thieves and drunks, while the police remain anonymous, outside of the frame. Only a few images provide brief glimpses of their presence mostly limbs aimed at striking the detainee.
One of the more poignant images from the series depicts a young boy pleading, his hands clasped; an almost hysterical sense of terror emanates from him. The image is titled 'Delinquent' and the viewer is left wondering about the child's age. What path has brought him here to be humiliated, pen scrawled across his forehead, by the police? The impact of this image comes from the fact that this boy is probably no older than 14, facing the grave consequences of a future in prison.
The presence of the police in these images is glaringly obvious (despite the fact little is seen of them) and the power they evoke manifests itself physically in the suspects' body language and facial expressions. Some faces appear puzzled or perplexed while others look to be pleading innocence. The most poignant examples of the interplay of power are found in the images in which the subject is visibly in a state of physical and/or emotional abuse - cowering figures, shielding their heads. They appear petrified of the invisible police officers who, Weber explains, have to meet monthly quotas of prosecuting criminals, often giving them the excuse to be overly forceful. This reaction to an invisible force is symbolic of the wider power dynamic between the authoritarian state and its citizens.
Weber is strongly influenced by Soviet history and in particular its fall from power. He was fascinated by one of Stalin’s more memorable quotes: ‘I am not concerned with how the court of history will judge our current deeds’. With his work he almost takes on the role of 'the court of history’, not necessarily judging but exploring and observing. This work then can be seen as evidence of the aftermath of the Soviet Union and the bloody turmoil of its past. These criminals are sadly the result of the oppression, corruption and violence, which, perhaps to a lesser extent, still plagues the ex-Soviet state.
Interrogations is available in three collectors' editions and also a standard release. It is published by the Amsterdam-based publisher Schilt who are well known for addressing an array of serious contemporary issues in their publications. The standard edition is printed on paper that unfortunately doesn’t do the photographs justice. The images hold rich warm tones and have a wonderful depth, which sadly doesn’t equate in the printing of the book. The collector’s editions are however signed and printed on archival photo paper with a limited edition print alongside the book. They are packaged in a Ukrainian police folder, which is then wrapped in police forms and finally set inside another box which is sealed with a wax stamp.
To look at this project from a western viewpoint would be to assume that this brutal misuse of power exists solely outside of the western world. Yet by looking at this work, we should not naturally assume that our societies do not also take partake in such violent means to achieve its own ends. Take for instance recent issues with the containment of ‘terror’ suspects.
Interrogations raises inevitable questions about institutionalised violence and Weber’s compliance with it, but the work, research and time Weber has invested, speaks for itself - this body of work is not an over-sensationalised piece of journalism. He hasn’t just turned up in an old Communist state, documented an unjust social issue and then left to further his own career back in the safety of Europe. This is a long-term project, which Weber has carefully crafted and explored over a six-year period. Taking first place in the Portrait-Series category in this year's World Press Photo demonstrates the recognition he deserves for this thought-provoking project.
Interrogations by Donald Weber
17 x 24 cm (portrait)
Hardbound, 90 photos in full colour