Photographer’s Blog – Day 3 – Donald Weber

Well, I finally managed to take some photos. This is an incredibly difficult story to tell, and I have grappled with ethical questions, and questions that have made me think of the exploitation we impose on our subjects. Is it for personal gratification we do this? For flying in a helicopter with bullets racing past, winning a World Press Award, having adventures far from our homeland, wrapping a scarf around the neck and telling tales of dashing heroism? What happens to those after you photograph them? Who are they, and what do they mean to you?

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This is Lida, I discuss her in the blog. This is the first frame of the day. I like the glow and the ‘otherworldliness’ of the photo. I have a better version, but for brevity sake I wanted to show this one in conjunction with the following photo. Donald Weber / VII Network

This city, Zholtie Vodi, has the highest cancer and TB rates in the country. With Nelly, we have been visiting them, one after the other, day after day. My only thought was “how do I photograph this? What are the aesthetic concerns? Is it a portrait or what?” When I hit that low, I knew I wasn’t going to do anything meaningful. I needed some time, so Pickles and I went for a long drive; we didn’t say a word for about six hours, just drove till the car ran out of gas. It’s time like this where you have to get quickly back to reality or else you’ll do nobody a service, certainly not yourself but most importantly those you want to photograph. When I’m driving, it helps clear my head and mind. I just let all the thoughts in my head stew and suddenly I’ll figure it out. Pretty much every Eureka moment I’ve had is either in a car, on my motorcycle, the bus or walking. For some reason the idea of movement is good for my brain. Only then can I snap back to reality, and shed these idiotic thoughts of art school imperialism, the imposition of us on them. As photographers I believe we should just be vessels, nothing more nothing less. When I realized this, the images started coming. I was not thinking, not reacting, but just feeling the surroundings and the space I was in. Who are you? What are your concerns, worries, joys? That’s what I needed to find out from the subjects.

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Lida, again, at home. She has heart problems and is confined to a bed. Last time she was outside was almost two years ago. I haven’t really edited anything yet from this trip, so here are two versions of the same photo. I hate making choices, I think they’re equally strong photos. I’ll see which one makes it later when I get a glimpse of all the photos together, perhaps it’s repetitive, perhaps the colours work with another photo. I’m not sure, so many decisions when editing. Donald Weber / VII Network

Sometimes I just know when to take a photo, the moment (not in a Cartier Bresson sense) seems right, I sense a communion within the space and the subject. It sounds rather vague, but as stated already a few times – instinct tells you what to do. No thoughts, no questions. It’s a very delicate dance you play with your subject, especially if the story is dealing with those who have experienced trauma, war, famine, sickness, disease, death, whatever – where does exploitation begin, and contributing something begin? I haven’t got an answer, I’m sure I’ve crossed the line on both sides. Sometimes you need to know when enough is enough, and when to push it. I naively still believe in the power of the still image, that yes, a single image can do something. But when it does something for your ego instead of those in the photo, well, then it’s time to get on.

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I talked about landscape and the importance of it to my story, how to photograph radiation, something that is silent and invisible. So, I wanted to portray that using nightmarish or strange or whatever scenes that could allude to a greater evil. Donald Weber / VII Network

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I stumbled upon this walking around one day. This town was a uranium mining centre, today most of the mines are closed but they still enrich uranium here. The new plan is to fill this hole with nuclear waste, apparently I guess they’re already started. Again, I like this landscape, it’s communicative to me. Donald Weber / VII Network

I’m often asked, what do you see when you’re taking a picture? My response is generally nothing; I don’t really look at anything. In fact I’m always surprised when I look through my take – did I take that? I don’t remember. But I shouldn’t say nothing – I am always looking at the person intently. I try to get a sense of who they are, we cannot expect to say everything about a person in a photo, but we can certainly allude to who they are in photographs. To me, it’s about eyes, the way a person looks, where they look, how they sit, the subtle gesture a hand makes. Any of these can highly enlighten someone looking at your photographs of who this person is.

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Church is an important ritual in Russian life. I was in a small village by the waste dump just wandering one morning and I went to church. A quote from Nelly was about her faith in both God and Science so i decided I would like to pursue this angle. Donald Weber / VII Network

When I was photographing a woman named Lida with a severe heart problem, I sensed an incredible sadness, but also a complacency that she knew her life was over. She had gone passed that line, there was no return and that in a few months she would be dead. In Russia, they call this a ‘goner,’ someone who is just sitting at the threshold of Heaven and subconsciously were able to reflect on who they were as people and what they did in this world. To me, I sensed regret from Lida, that she had failed somehow, but also a great happiness that she was able to reach these conclusions and that once dead, her life could begin. Of course, all profound speculation on my part, but this is what I sensed, what I felt, with my too little time with Lida. All in the look of her eyes. So, that’s what I look at when I’m photographing.

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More wandering around the edges of the city, just getting a sense of daily life. Not really sure why she’s playing with fire – something that this city has been doing for years. Donald Weber / VII Network

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