Featured post

Contemporary Narratives - Photography: A Short Guide to History, Theory, and Practice: Online Course Starting April 27th 2022

  Sign up to my new series of talks on Contemporary Narratives - Photography: A Short Guide to History, Theory, and Practice .  Starts on Ap...

Monday, 8 November 2010

Donald Weber's Interrogations

 Petty Thief
 Delinquent and Shop Lifter
 Prostitute and Drug Dealer

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.


inger said...

How has the right to have copyright to these sad pictures apart from the subjec
matter? How can you sell these pictures unless the money goes to the subject? Immoral to support these regimes in quiet recognition.But of course if the blog author has his say...

colin pantall said...

Thanks for your comments, inger - that's why I asked the questions I did, which Donald answered as he did.

Do you think there would be complicity if it was a writer in the room, what about a novelist or a filmmaker, what about if it was another police officer or somebody bringing in coffee for the policeman.

I understand exactly where you are coming from, but I also see Weber's point of view which he puts so eloquently - but it's a thin line. Does it matter that Weber has photographed both sides (is he complicit with the pimps, prostitutes and thieves he photographs - or is that something different) - I don't know, but in this case at least, I would definitely not want to shoot the messenger.

Stan B. said...

Thank you for this. And this is not meant as a "kill the messenger" comment, not at all, but Mr. Weber (as any photographer) is the primary viewer (voyeur?), so to shrug off whatever "complicity" may exist soley on the audience is a tad disengenuous.

colin pantall said...

It's a good comment, Stan but I'm with Donald on this one, partly because he explains himself well and I feel photographers need the slack that writers and film-makers have, partly because my first instinct was the same as yours and then I reconsidered. Do you think there are any circumstances where the photographer is allowed to document power and how it is used. How about documenting it in a gang/criminal setting - how about something like Capa's pictures of theshaven-headed collaborator with her baby in France?

What about anyone else? Any thoughts on the matter.

D Weber said...

The very act of photography is complicity by nature. We're all complicit, the viewer isn't left unwashed in this process. The subjects, the photographer, the viewer, we're all in this together, a symbiotic engagement. And frankly I take umbrage at the assumption that this is in support of a regime. In fact I find it an indictment of the entire process of interrogation for confession universally, it's our Western thinking that draws assumptions on the dastardliness of "other" regimes which I am trying to recognize. Interrogation is all about manipulation and desperation, very violent psychological torture regardless where it's practiced. Unfortunately, some places are worse then others. We can't keep denying the reality of things that exist. For truth is complicit: a mutual recognition, however fleeting, of power, and surrender to power. This work interrogates the interrogators.

Without confessions and guilty pleas, courts everywhere would grind to a halt in an instant. It is not designed to give everyone a fair trial; this is what the cops are doing behind their closed doors— the feudal system’s trial by ordeal is still much with us. Trial by ordeal – that is what is going on here, but closed to the public now.

erik chevalier said...

I've got a cat who can wait for hours for his little victims to be at their most vulnerable, it's not even a matter of survival (he's a well-off cat living in the first world), but he's a predator and that's the way predators operate.

colin pantall said...

I'm with Donald on this one though I'm not sure the very act of photography is complicity.

But there are things we don't want to see, there are things we don't want to think about, there are things that happen in these pictures that also happen closer to home and Donald's pictures open up how that happens and maybe also why that happens.

How about anyone who photographs war, conflict or suffering and is involved with the powers-that-cause-it-all - which brings us back to Broomberg and Chanarin and the previous post...

Anonymous said...

The most interesting thing about the images for me is that sense that I am witnessing a process, and that I ma not necessarily seeing any definitive point in the process. I have no idea how long it has been going on or how low it will continue. Or what the final result may be. Interesting.
Complicity? Moot point I think. Wether we the consumers choose to consume the images or not (and that is always the choice) or wether the photographer chooses to make them or not (the other ever present choice) will have no effect whatsoever and so how can anyone be complicit? We have nothing to do with the act, how can we? There might be some affect but probably not; the effect of the Abu Graib images was short lived, all the war photography assembled together has never had any effect. Would anything have happened if someone had photographed the much publicised use of waterboarding? It's not complicity, it is a choice.

Tony Fouhse said...

This discussion reminds me in some ways of the shitstorm that surrounded USER (though the USER images were taken with the consent and collaboration of the subjects). One of the arguments against Donald's work seems to centre on the fact that he has no business being there, photographing this. To me that argument is pretty much a non-starter. I believe that it's important to go places and show things that might make some folks uncomfortable. We in the First World suffer from a surfeit of comfort and removing comfort is one of the only ways forward.

Stan B. said...

Yes, by seeing and knowing, we are all complicit, and responsible.

And how strange that this work (which we all need more of) comes out of secretive, authoritarian Russia- severely doubt it would be allowed and sanctioned in the USA.

colin pantall said...

Thanks SA - I think the effect of the Abu Ghraib pictures will be quite long lived - these are the ones people rememember (together witht the toppling of the statue ones) and I think they sum up what kind of a society they came from and ask the question of whether we want to be (or are) part of that society/culture and way of thinking. At the moment the answer is yes on the whole. Weber's pictures perhaps do the same thing.

And yeah! Remove the complicity from the viewer! Absolutely! And why not remove it from the photographer as well at the same time - for the kind of work we are talking about. Focus instead on the people who are being photographed and what they are doing - the world does not revolve around the photography, we are not the sun, we are but little bits of random space dust.

Thanks Tony - I was thinking of your work when I saw Donald's - hard core Canadians and the same comments could apply. I think you have to work through it and get to the other side - and at the same time photography is about showing something new, that people aren't used to seeing, and that will always raise a shitstorm. If we don't do that, then we are just stuck in cliche and sentiment, which are places nobody should want to be.

I saw Battle of Algiers the other day and that did make me think of Marc Garanger but I think that is very different.

Anonymous said...

complicit |kəmˈplisit|
involved with others in an illegal activity or wrongdoing : all of these people are complicit in some criminal conspiracy.

For myself I do not think photography is illegal or a wrongdoing and neither can I imagine how I become complicit, and therefore an accomplice |əˈkämplis|
a person who helps another commit a crime,
by viewing these images. How on Earth am I or anyone not explicitly involved, responsible? Saying that we are complicit (in an event) when we view an image is way out there. Are we complicit with every crime when we view an image of it? Seeing and knowing does not make us complicit, it makes us aware.

D Weber said...

--> Anonymous: I guess my understanding of "complicit" in its correct sense is misunderestimated...?

Anyway, seeing as people are speculating on the actions of the photographer without any sense of how the pictures were actually made, I offer this:

I’ve spent almost six years living and working in this area. On my very first trip I met a police detective with whom I got along with. Over time, we developed a bond and a trust. Every trip I would bring him photographs and was always very upfront with my work, who I was and what I was doing. Never hiding the results, however critical they may be of him and the methods the police employ.

“About five years ago I witnessed my first interrogation, and was utterly shocked at its violence, not just physically but mentally as well. Solzhenitsyn talks for almost a third of his book The Gulag Archipelago about the nature of interrogation, and the importance of the interrogation not just through Soviet history, but universally. He would think everyday about the moment of his interrogation how he was broken, and everyday about the moment of his execution. So, the seed for this story was planted.

For obvious reasons I could not just ask to photograph inside an interrogation. As my work progressed, so did my police contact, who rose over time to the rank of Major. He had gained a position of authority to grant permission. Since we had spent so many years together photographing, he was aware of my methods and how I worked. We rarely spoke to each other, during work or after hours. I felt it best to maintain as much distance as possible but still respectful of his role. When he finally granted permission he still made me work for the access to the actual accused.

I sat almost everyday for four months on a bench in a hallway of the police station waiting with the people who were to be interrogated. The first month, not a single frame was photographed. Each day I would show up 9am, and leave approximately 12 hours later. Most days were spent with nothing to photograph, many of the accused were not interested in having there photo taken. On average, I was lucky to photograph maybe two people a week over a four month period.

This was not simply a case of walking in saying hello as a privileged Westerner and flashing my camera around. This was a project five years in the making. So before anybody rushes to quick accusation, I felt the facts as to how the work was created should be shared.

Stalin once said, "We are not concerned with how the court of History will view our present deeds." Well, as a photographer, I disagree with him.

simon anstey said...

As I wrote I think the images are very fine and something I have not seen before. There was whatshisname who photographed a few years ago in the gulags but they were nothing like "A day in the life..." Images from the old Soviet are not what we get to see very often apart from the seminal works which have come about in the last decade or so; Vinterrejse, Case History, At Dawn, At Dusk.....and this work gives us another facet of understanding that huge land. So thanks for that.
The perceived veracity of photography has taken a dramatic turn for the worse in the last few years and the reputation of the practitioners has become tenuous, most especially when the subject contains moral conflict or dissonance. There will always be that debate on intervention, but that debate is for the majority of subjects just a crock of crap because, firstly, the photographer could never intervene physically and secondly the photographer is intervening by being present, bearing witness and dispersing that insight. Intervening in peoples ignorance of the fact, in peoples perceptions.
Sounds like the job is getting done to me.
SA aka anonymous said

Stan B. said...

I think we can safely put the c(omplicity) word to rest. Awareness, and the responsibility awareness places on all facets of society, is what this essay provides. It is ridiculous to actually associate this essay (along with much of photojournalism's history, as Colin has already alluded to) with criminality on the part of the photographer.

When I first saw these images, my first visual (not moral- so don't go there) reference were the forced portraits taken in the Cambodian Killing Fields. So it was interesting to read:

"...many of the accused were not interested in having there photo taken. On average, I was lucky to photograph maybe two people a week over a four month period."

I'm sure many could see the act of being photographed in this condition as a further act of humiliation placed on the subject.
One does not usually associate any incarcerated person with the power to grant others any kind of permission. Context always goes a long way.