Photographer’s Blog – Day 2 – Donald Weber

Not a literal day today. If I sound preachy – too bad. I thought I’d discuss what I look for when I start a project, the development of an idea and starting from scratch. A little background info, the story I was photographing was a town called Zholtie Vodi, a former uranium mining and enrichment centre, the heart of the Soviet atomic industry that was also built using depleted uranium in construction materials, poisoning over 40,000 of the 60,000 residents with cancer, TB, heart disease, etc. To top it off, the geniuses of state government have decided that this region should also become a destination for nuclear waste, as if there were not enough concerns. When I first heard of this city from friends, my brain went electric – such an obvious story and related perfectly to ‘Post Atomic.’

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One of the first portraits I took on this story. Dima, 20, has fourth stage cancer and just emerged from cancer. I like to use light to allude to something else, to me it’s sort of Heavenly, and I was consistent on this story in the way I used light. Yes I know, the highlights are blown. That’s why I like it.

It’s these little fleeting moments that I cherish, I love getting excited about things like this, (yes, yes, I am a loser. That’s well established by now). My brain is always open and constantly seeing things that could turn into full fledged projects. I have an ability to catalogue things in my head; from here I make connections, if it gets interesting I then do some research. Another aspect of story gathering and speculation is reading. I constantly have a book or two on the go, sometimes about a place I want to visit, something I’m interested in, or whatever. Lately I have been reading fiction that is vaguely related to my interests. I think as photographers we are more like novelists, at least that is where I am heading with my own work. Now get your undies out of your ass, I am not talking fictionally creating stories, but an author in the end has something to say; their tool is the novel. To me, it’s documentary photography. Composers, journalists, authors, photographers – those who are relating real-world issues in their chosen voice. I don’t believe in reacting to something; I prefer to discover and establish a thesis and find the story that is relevant.

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Nelly, feeding her plants. This woman was amazing, I only hope someone wants to help her to pay for her surgery. How much? 350,000 Euros. That’s correct. Let’s be thankful for our social system in Canada.

When I started on this story of the atomic city, my research was quite vague. It’s a very underreported story, in fact I was one of the only journalists to discuss this issue, local friends had vaguely heard about it, the Internet was, surprisingly, sparse with info. So, upon arriving with my fixer (more on him later) we first went to meet as many people as we could. We had only one contact, a friend of Vova’s (my fixer) brother who was a radio host of evangelical programming. We went to his church, and I was amazed at how many people were there, at least 200 – quite sizeable for an evangelical church in a small town. This definitely got filed into my brain. Kolya, the Christian radio host, was not much help, but he managed to get us an apartment for cheap. In the end, it was a worthwhile contact.

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Just wandering one day, I came by the graveyard. Over here, they have a sort of day of the dead, where relatives come and pay respects to those who have died. This woman was coming to see her son who died two years ago of cancer.

For the next week, Vova and I made numerous trips to the mayor’s office, the university (radiation specialists), hospitals, clinics, old age home, trade unions, churches, everywhere, trying to gather information. I didn’t take a photograph for one week, maybe a little longer. Rather depressing, but essential. As we were gathering info and contacts and trying to find a way in (all the officials were incredibly brusque and refused to talk – one even saying that he will refuse me entry to all hospitals because he was forbidden from exiting a plane in Canada in 1978… the sins of our fathers!) The theme of my story started taking shape, I managed to finally figure out what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it and what the issues were that needed to be documented.

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Ludmila has stomache cancer. Basically everyone I met cannot afford to pay for medicines or basic treatments. If you have money you’ll be alright, but even by middle class standards, people are still very poor. She was a nurse, her husband a teacher. Combined, they make about $200 a month. Cost of meds per month, $1,000.

Again, this all comes back to intuition and instinct, clearing your head of preconceived ideas. I stress research is important, but in the same sense it can also be a hindrance, you must be smart about finding that right balance. In talking with people, I noted similar themes or issues that kept coming up. From here, I could begin to construct what and when I wanted to photograph. I learned of an old age home that had dances every Saturday night for retired miners, a significant part of the population of this town were uranium miners. It’s just the little things like that which can start fleshing out a story, and probably not found on the Internet. After a week, Vova and I managed to secure a great contact, a woman named Nelly who is in the fourth stage of bone marrow cancer and a fierce advocate for the ailing in her town. These are precisely the people you need to meet – open, sincere, brutally honest and believe in what you’re doing. She sought me out as she heard a foreigner was in town and thought I would be her vehicle for the telling the story the town would rather have suppressed. In a way, she acted as my fixer’s fixer. Without her, we would still be sitting in some official’s office being berated. I always try to go off the official path, usually what they feed you is bullshit and propaganda, especially in the former Soviet Union. Nothing is wrong, everything is fine. The Russians actually have a word for this outward display of bullshit – pokazuka. And Potemkin’s village is rooted very firmly in the Russian mindset.

We found Nelly just by talking to as many as people as possible, letting people know what we were doing and our phone number was passed around; my only regret is that we didn’t find her on the first day! This is where the importance of a fixer can either break you or make you. I’ve been lucky to have an established relationship with Vova (or Bob Pickles, as he prefers. I’ve told him many times nobody in their right mind would ever have the last name Pickles in Canada. He’s persistent in being called Bob Pickles, a good trait in a fixer). Even though I speak Russian, I like to play dumb. And no matter how well you speak the language, it’s more important to understand the cultural niceties of wherever you are. I never get a Russian joke, to me they’re just dumb – but when I don’t laugh I offend someone I am hoping to help me. And this is where the fixer comes in. He’s local, understands what needs to be said and how the situation should be handled. Bob Pickles and I are by this stage more like collaborators. He knows what I want and I trust his ability in helping me get access. Without a good fixer, I don’t think you can truly delve deep into a society. I like to work intimately and get to know people. Rarely photographing on the street, I find success in gaining access to private moments that normally we wouldn’t be allowed to see.

This work is extremely tedious, frustrating and boring. But the pay off is so incredible, what we’re allowed to see and experience through those whom we meet, that’s what makes getting spittle in the face from a blowhard bureaucrat worthwhile. I’ve gone down a trail having the privilege to meet people like Nelly and Bob Pickles, and yes, even the officials – it’s all of them that make the endless days of a camera lying stale worth every miserable moment.

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This is myself and Bob Pickles. We first met on Independence Square in Kiev December 2004 and have been working together ever since. I think this picture sums up the photographer – fixer relationship perfectly!

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