Photographer’s Blog – Day 1 – Donald Weber

I’m not going to bore anyone with a daily “woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head” blog. I’ll condense a recent trip I made (in fact just returned the day before I wrote all this) for three weeks working on a project into five days and try to cover all the basics that I think make a photographer and my thought processes (which will probably bore you anyway).

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I shot this in February this year in Chernobyl. It’s from a story called ‘Stalker.’ I was hoping to find something in Chernobyl that was completely new and never before told. I have numerous contacts there still and I remember meeting these guys who call themselves ‘stalkers.’ Basically, it was my first attempt at shooting something in a few days. It always seemed everything I did took years. That is good, but every now and then you need to do something “magazineable.” (I got copyright on that phrase!)

Click here to see the full essay. Photo by Donald Weber/VII Network

This was a very difficult assignment, I had been planning for months and managed to secure funding from a magazine that would cover all the expenses, and if I ate little – or nothing – then I could actually make some money. As they say in Russia ‘fancy that.’ With a day before departure, I got word that the project was not a go for a variety of reasons. Needless to say, in a tough economic year, I was planning on travelling on someone else’s dime for once, but most importantly this was to be a second part in a long term story I’m working on, “Post Atomic,” and this simpatico relationship I had established with the magazine was a wonderful opportunity to combine what I wanted to pursue and secure the most rarest of things in all photography, especially in a recession – funding.

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This is from my ‘Zek and Natasha’ series, part of which was funded while on a Guggenheim Fellowship. I shot about 50 of these guys and their partners, prostitutes called ‘Natasha.’ Zeks are Russian cons and have a very structured system of tattoos and language. It was something I always wanted to shoot and fit perfectly into my project on Power and the wounds it inflicts on those who don’t have it.

I promptly went to my apartment, turned off my phone, closed the curtains and sulked for two days, with intermittent fits of rage, sadness and incredulity. Luckily I had two good friends to bitch and complain too, Jim Ross and my Italian photographer friend, Massimo Mastrorillo (an excellent photographer, by the way). Friends – number one in this business, certainly since it’s such a competitive industry finding those you can trust and rely upon are crucial. I’ve also been asked the merits of belonging to a photo agency, and I can say at times like these is when it’s great to have support and back-up. We’re all going through hard times and we’ll all have problems to overcome. It’s great to have like-minded colleagues who are there for you when you need it. I managed to get an asskicking too, from Marcus Bleasdale, who said dry your stupid tears and move on. Part of being a successful photographer are how you react at these moments. So, thanks Marcus – and you can see why he is successful as he is. The general theme of this blog is not how great your photos are, but what you do behind the camera to secure those great images. Time and again, I believe it’s your actions, and not your composition. For me photographing is cathartic, at times I absolutely hate doing it, but I also need to take pictures, or else why have I depleted my savings, left my friends and family behind and eat shitty food day after day?

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I made a series of these old photographs on some sort of textured background. All the photos I found from people living in towns that were once Gulag settlements; the photos were of family members who had died or were executed as part of Stalin’s repressions. This is a photo I never would’ve thought of, it just came to me one day when I was interviewing someone, I felt these patterns and textures gave an intimacy to the portraits, contrasting sharply with the way the died. Donald Weber / VII Network

In the last few years of working, I’ve started to figure the odd thing out. One of the most important is to always have a well of ideas; I’m constantly working on and fleshing out story proposals in my head and writing them down. At any given time I like to have at least five that are solid, well thought out and interesting ideas to potentially pursue. Some of them may never come to fruition, some get turned into grant or award applications, others are projects I have wanted to do or are support projects related to the grander scheme of whatever I am working on at that moment. I was glad to have these ideas; in fact by knowing implicitly what they were, I emailed the editor at said magazine and in a few sentences gave him a pitch for two ideas that were related to the ‘Post Atomic’ project that had just been cancelled. Within fifteen minutes he emailed me back and asked when I could start the second idea. “Next day,” I replied. Suddenly, things were not so bad.

This chosen pursuit of ours is such an unpredictable one. At times you can experience glorious highs and the deepest of lows; I’ve been at the top and recently felt I was at the bottom, my faith was waning in my abilities and also in photography in general. Luckily, I have always been able to think quickly and make snap decisions that have been thought out and calculated, I think an underrated aspect of what makes a good photographer. I find that actually composing a frame and pushing the shutter button is the least important – I can think of many more important characteristics that fit into the puzzle of what being a photographer is all about. Certainly intuition and instinct are essential, not just at recognizing a photograph, but getting a feeling for situations and people, that elusive “connection,” or communion, with the subjects, that I believe to be near the top. Having an ability to just accept and not judge those you’re photographing is number one. Creating a pretty picture, not so interesting. Building a bond or a trust, no matter how fleeting, is what elevates you onto a different level; it’s about who you photograph, not how you create the aesthetic. Don McCullin, whom everyone should read and study his photographs, called this the ‘composition of empathy.’ Certainly a mantra we should all take into account.

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This is my take on a news event, I really don’t like doing them, I’m a terrible news photographer. This was a protest march against Putin by the very disorganized Opposition Party. moscow, December 2007. Photo by Donald Weber/VII Network

Another important aspect is recognizing what you want to say. It’s a simple question, but also a complicated one. If you really want to be a photographer, then you’ll have to figure it out yourself. It’s taken a few years but I know what I want to say, every idea that comes into my head or every scene I witness has a connection to my very basic thesis. Personally it’s made things easier, I am not scattered about what I want to take pictures of, I am not saddened or disappointed when I don’t take a picture, I know the next one will come along. It makes life a lot easier, too, and gets you on track. An editor may hire you on aesthetic, but they also want to know what moves you, what are you working on, what can this photographer bring to the story and magazine? When you know, they’ll know and more and more likely you’ll be assigned. I have been given work that doesn’t necessarily fit into my contention, but they felt the modes of thinking between the writer and myself, or the story ideas are similar.

But, back to this story, and the realities of being a working photographer. I guess you can say I am abnormal, thus my experiences will mostly be irrelevant to many of you. But I make my living from taking photos, that’s it, there is no supplement, and what I have chosen to do is live overseas pursuing work that is meaningful to me and at the same time survive by securing clients for magazines, NGO’s, grants, etc. As I have developed my career in the last few years, I’ve come to the realization that there really is no clear answer as to how to do what we want to do. You just need to push and fight and scratch and accept and patiently wait and be grateful for whatever comes your way. Take huge risks – the bigger the better.

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This is from a new ongoing series I am working on (in film!) The Last Thing They Saw, NKVD Death Sites in Russia and Ukraine. Everywhere you go in Russia and Ukraine, practically every town, village and city has a site of mass executions by the Soviet Secret Police. The original idea was to imagine myself about to be executed – what would I look at? This also was in relation to a passage I read in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago about execution and the path someone may make to their death.

Donald Weber / VII Network

My whole life has been made on giant leaps of faith. In the end, I’ve been successful and lucky to land on my feet to get to take that next leap; but I’ve also completely missed and crashed bloody horribly (literally). Which, at the time is not so fun, but crawling back is really half the fun. I’ll be honest here, I don’t really care, but I didn’t work for four months until recently – nothing, not one single assignment, phone call, email or bouquet of roses. Rather desperate times, so of course that was rather bleak, the last time it was like this for me was when I was starting out, I went a stretch of 6 months with no work! Anyway, in those moments – and there will be many more – I just have faith. Faith in who I am and faith that something will happen. But it’s up to us, as the photographer, to make it happen.

I mentioned the story well before. By having these ideas I managed to salvage a paying assignment that would fund my personal project. Secondly, when I was in home in Canada last, I made three grant proposals – Aftermath (I managed to be a finalist, and congrats to Louie on his win), Getty (I was a loser!) and Canada Council, all with ideas that had already been written down, researched and developed. All I had to do was tweak them to the specific requirements. The day after I salvaged my ‘Post Atomic’ story, my sister emailed to say that I was the recipient of a Canada Council grant, my first time applying and a huge burden suddenly lifted – those dark days were fleeting memories, my impending bankruptcy put off until next year. I was seriously considering how to move forward if something didn’t happen shortly, but over time I developed a few things. I know what I want to photograph. By knowing, I have managed to come up with over the years some serious story ideas that I could use in the future, enabling me to not be so much reliant upon editorial clients but creating work that is personal. Of course, I’ll be glad to accept editorial commissions! (Anyone?) So, what the hell am I rambling about? It’s up to us, and no one else, to make who we are.

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