Photographer’s Q&A – Donald Weber
This week’s Q&A is with documentary photographer Donald Weber. His web site is donaldweber.com.
The origins of Russia’s criminal caste lie deep in Russia’s history. Huge territories of Russia were inhabited by prisoners and prison guards. Thieves, or zeks, distinguish themselves from others by tattoos marking their rank in the criminal world: there are different tattoos for homesexuals, thieves, rapists and murderers, etc. Photo By Donald Weber / VII Network
What were your first steps in the industry?
I got an internship at the Toronto Sun for the summer of 2001. It was interesting. I guess I would be the last person considered for this job, as the styles were completely antithetical to each other. But, it was a great learning experience. I learned a lot about creating a picture, not just from an aesthetic element, but things like deadlines, captioning, filing; all the boring stuff that makes you an actual photographer.
I was turned down at all the other big papers for an internship and Hugh Wesley, (then Toronto Sun photo editor), offered me a job on the spot. That was assuring to me as I had never sold a photograph or really taken any pictures other than for personal reasons.
Secondly, I went to The Globe and Mail and asked for some freelance work from (then Director of Photography) Erin Elder. She liked my work but I still had to impress the individual picture editors. I got a total of two jobs in eight months. Needless to say, those were lean times!
One of my first assignments was to photograph a couple who were just married under the new same-sex marriage laws. I waited hours for them after their press conference, as I wanted a better picture. By the time they were to be photographed, the sun was setting which, at the time, I thought was an inopportune moment for one man to lean in and kiss his new husband. It was a little blurry but I liked the photo and thought it added a little something – mood! – to what could be a rather drab experience. Anyway, it wasn’t a hit at the paper.
Lastly, I would say my real step into the biz was at The Globe when photo editor Moe Doiron gave me an assignment for the new “Careers” section of the paper. Moe was the “Report On Business” picture editor and he wanted to add something a little different to this section. He was looking for documentary-style photos, sort of the opposite of what was happening at the time with posed and lit portraits. So, I just went out and took photos the way I knew how to take photos. I just spent some time with the subject and photographed as things naturally unfolded. When I filed, Moe was quite pleased with the direction and it made the section front the next day.
After that, I was working steadily for three years before I decided to move on from The Globe. But those events taught me a few things.
First, don’t judge. People may frown at the Toronto Sun but for a new photographer like myself, it was a great learning experience. I was able to photograph many things I probably never would’ve thought I wanted to.
Second, be comfortable with who you are. At The Globe, I was supported as a photographer to make pictures that I, not someone else, would make. I lost certain types of work because I just wasn’t the appropriate photographer for that particular job. But, I also gained a lot of work because I was perfect for whatever assignment they had in mind where they knew I would come back with something special. To this day, I am hired because I shoot in a certain manner that an editor thinks appropriate for their story.
Scenes from the Chernobyl region, an area affected by the social and psychological fallout of the Chernobyl meltdown in April, 1986. Alcohol has always had a special place in Slavic society, where vodka translates literally as “little water” and where binge-drinking is an accepted norm even among young teenagers. Viktor Popovichenko, a 32-year-old hard drinker, lives in Orane, a half-deserted village near Chernobyl, northwest Ukraine. Photo By Donald Weber / VII Network
When you were a student, what did you want to do after graduation and are you where you thought you would be now?
Well I just wanted to be a photographer and make a living doing it. However, I also had specific ideas about the kind of photographer I wanted to be and certain stories I wanted to communicate.
I can say I have completely veered from what I thought I wanted as a photographer while at Loyalist College. But then, we can never make solid predictions about anything we choose to do in the future, which is why I love photography. Anyway, all I knew is that I wanted to freelance and go off to photograph what interested me. I can say I am doing that.
What or who are your biggest inspirations?
Well, nothing in particular, I have trust in “eureka” moments which I tend to have frequently when I’m just walking about (which I like to do because it gives me time to think). I’ll see something that triggers a thought or memory and then I either write it down or let it congeal in my brain.
I love to be either bored or completely caught up in the moment. Tough to settle in between. It’s a way of making action because I can be real lazy and then when I am tired of being lazy, I go nuts (in terms of production and then I’m off, my mind is made up).
As for photographers who inspired me, my favourite was, and always will be, Raymond Depardon.
I am an avid student of photography and am interested in all kinds. In my early days, I was totally impressed with Chris Morris and Don McCullin (well, I still am!). Currently, I am pouring over Josef Koudelka’s 1968 Revolution photos. I love Jocelyn Bain Hogg’s work (fellow “VII Networker”). Simon Norfolk is always interesting. I stumbled upon a German photographer named Dirk Alvermann, from the 1960’s, who’s just great!
I was an architect for a few years, so architecture has always moved me and always will. I like seeing something that people have created that pushes the limits of what contemporaries view as illegitimate or something. Eggleston is great for that. When you put his photos in context of the 70’s, it is absolutely astonishing what he accomplished. He had a singular vision and followed his voice, albeit he was mocked and ridiculed, but in the end, he and Stephen Shore completely changed the way we view modern colour photography.
My former architectural employer, Rem Koolhaas, is also one who constantly went his own way and developed his own voice. I always enjoy reading what he has to say and seeing his new work.
I think a common thread is about creating something and maintaining a voice throughout. Of course, we have to expand our horizons. But you need to understand what you want to say first and foremost.
Lastly, when I am working on a project, I read. I always read, especially books that have any sort of vague connection to the story I am thinking of. It’s amazing how many ideas you can get through literature.
For example, when I was editing my latest Russia project, I was reading “White Guard and Flight” by Mikhail Bulgakov who always discusses the colours white, red and gold in various contexts. To me, it was like a musical leitmotif and in my editing, I also strove to think on those terms. Bulgakov helped me look at my photos in a new way, something I wouldn’t have done if I was not inspired by his writing. His writing helped me make various connections and plot lines within the edit itself.
Gennady, a police detective, takes a drag of a smoke while he attempts to extract a confession out of Vadim. The police found marijuana in Vadim’s apartment, known to the cops as a place for alcoholics to gather. Vadim denied the marijuana was his, and the cops were determined to get a confession. Photo By Donald Weber / VII Network
Did you have a mentor? How important are mentors?
Hmmm… not really. I wanted to! But nobody wanted to be my mentor!
I had a chance with Chris Morris but I was a chicken and blew it. But, I was lucky as I had allies in Erin Elder and Moe Doiron, both of whom, I think, were important people in my photo career. By giving me work, it meant that there was faith in what I wanted to do and it kept me going through lean times.
I think all photographers just need someone or something to get them through. In the end, we are fragile creatures and a helping hand goes a long way.
What was a pivotal point in your career?
That Globe and Mail front section photo I mentioned earlier, and heading off on my first big trip to eastern Turkey in 2003.
I cannot deny that just getting bored (see what I mean!) one day and then heading off to Ukraine to cover the Orange Revolution in December 2004 on my own had a profound impact on my career. Everything up to that point was training for that moment, when I decided I was ready to head out on my own – move out of the house, so to speak.
How important is multimedia to you?
Mmm…. not much! I think telling stories is important but the method we do them? I don’t care, as long as there is something interesting to say.
Before I get misquoted here, I am not discounting what we have to do to continue telling what we want to tell. But the question is misleading and confronts what I think is the bigger problem.
We are overwhelmed by the technology given to us and have forgotten our roots. Frankly, I haven’t seen anything yet that truly uses the technology at our disposal to further what we want to say and do in a new manner that photography could not already do. To me, they’re just documentaries, shot on video – why is this called multimedia? Everybody else calls them short films!
Vorkuta, regional centre of one of the largest concentrations of Gulag camps in the USSR. Founded by prisoners, the region is populated by descendants of former zeks and prison authorities. Vorkuta was the most notorious Gulag settlements in European Russia, and is situated at the end of the Kotlas – Vorkuta Railway, otherwise known as the “Road of Bones.” One of the many abandoned settlements that line the outer edges of Vorkuta. Most of the coal mines and settlements now lie empty as people flock south for a better future with jobs, leaving behind the city that was founded by their parents and grandparents. Photo By Donald Weber / VII Network
It’s ironic that newspapers are rushing full-tilt to do motion while TV is going the opposite way. I was watching the TV news the other night and they couldn’t stop pushing “see our web gallery for the day in photos”. While at the papers, they tell readers to go to their web site to watch videos.
I think we’ve all missed the boat and the point. Multimedia is here to stay. But I think we have to think of what it can do and how we can use those tools best to tell our stories. By rushing out and making rather dull films, we really don’t further anything, let alone the viewers who read/watch/view our work.
I am working on a few things now, they’re not very good, but I have started to approach stories in my head from a new perspective. That is, what is the best form for this story? To continue to make these films, for me, is actually regressing us as photographers and storytellers, only denigrating what we do as photographers. That’s what I am and that’s what I want to do. I will use the technology at my disposal to present the work however it feels it needs to be presented.
How do you ensure that you are progressing as a visual journalist?
I don’t know. I just keep going out there and always try to be working on ideas, if not physically by photographing, then by percolating ideas in my head. When things get stale, I try to approach it in a new manner. Look around, see what’s happening in the world, try to stay engaged and push your own personal limits and comfort zone.
When I find myself getting into well-worn clichés, I try to do the opposite. Just watch that “Seinfeld” TV episode where George decides to do the total opposite; it worked out quite well for him!
But I think if you’re genuinely engaged in what it is you want to say and how you want to say it, then you’ll progress on your own, virtually through evolution, something we all do as humans. I am not one for too many rules or “ways” of doing things. Just let it flow, like nature.
The town of Gori, close to the border of South Ossetia, was attack by Russian artillery on Friday, August 9th. Around 60 people were killed when apartment blocks were hit. A severed hand lies on the grass outside a destroyed apartment block that was ruined by Russian artillery. Photo By Donald Weber / VII Network
What are some of the must-see web sites you visit? Please include why you visit these sites (e.g. inspiration, guidance, information, education).
I don’t go to too many web sites but I read Conscientious because at times there’s an interesting photographer to look at.
I like the photo book blog 5B4. It’s more than just photo books. He has an understanding of what it is we do as photographers and has a knack for shedding light on certain photographers who are lost, forgotten, abandoned or up-and-coming. This is probably my favourite photo web site.
PDN for day-to-day biz stuff, keep up-to-date, etc.
But I rarely surf the web for pleasure. I find it rather boring and tedious. I’d rather watch TV. I haven’t really found anything that provokes me to come back time and again. I’d say the only site that approached photography blogs on a totally visceral level, and which drew me back day after day, was Alec Soth’s blog. But it’s dead.
For news, the usual: Globe and Mail, BBC, CBC, Google News, nothing fancy.
Lately, I have been reading The Atlantic online. I like these type of magazines, (e.g. Atlantic, Harpers, Walrus, New Yorker), for their in-depth look at interesting subjects. The taste is different online than in print. This is the direction I feel newspapers should be heading. But I highly doubt the bean counters upstairs will even remotely consider.
What is your favourite way to unwind?
Well, by going to places I really shouldn’t be. When I unwind, I get completely, insanely bored and I need to go somewhere, somewhere I really shouldn’t be. I like that.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you about being a photographer?
I asked Erin Elder, at a portfolio review at Loyalist College, why she hired photographers Patti Gower and John Morstad, (part of what, I think, was the greatest line-up of newspaper photographers in this country, along with Fred Lum and Tibor Kolley, at The Globe and Mail – Hall of Fame for sure!).
She said that they each had their own personal style and vision, and each knew what they wanted to say and how they wanted to say it. To her, it wasn’t about being a jack-of-all-trades but about presenting photography in distinct voices that could capture the day’s events with vision. Ah-hah! Click goes the light…