Photographer’s Blog – Day 4 – Donald Weber

I’m finally getting into the rhythm of the story. It has taken almost two weeks, but I have managed to discover the points that I need to focus on in order to make an interesting, compelling story. When I’m working, the story is always evolving and in flux. Only by talking with people, being absorbed in the place you’re working in and just generally being open to what happens around you, can a viable creation actually start to come into existence.

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Artyom, 24, has muscular dystrophy. A huge problem in this town. I wanted to show the various sicknesses that can happen when living within a city that, in places, is worse then Chernobyl. For this photo I wanted to show his frailty and thinness. In first meeting Artyom, he mentioned that he does stretches every morning, so I made a date with him and came back for the morning.

When I start a project, the end product is wildly different from my preconception of what I wanted – generally for the better. I now go into a project with an open mind, and trying not to visualize photos, this just leads to dangerous disappointment. Our imaginations are the best photographers.

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More landscapes, I took hundreds, this is just one that popped out in my initial edit. I drove by here everyday and thought it would make a nice picture. I don’t know if it’ll make it into the final round. A question you have to always ask yourself in editing and the answer is usually brutal, but how does it relate to the story? Sometimes, though, you just need a breather or a chapter break so to speak in an edit to slow down and readjust and just let the viewer ponder before you hit them on the head again.

So, while working in Zholtie Vodi, I started with an idea that the town was to be visually interesting – mines, smoke billowing, pollution, radiation signs, all the tricks that make up a picture – perhaps an important one, but artificial, nonetheless. Kind of reminds me of the endless photos I see of some graphical base; like trees, with a human imposed on top of it. Sure, it works, but really – what is this photo saying? Other then the photographer composed a pleasant frame, not much.

As the days developed, the questions became harder for me to answer, and doubt reigned. I am usually highly doubtful of what I’m doing. Not until I am done and edited and looking through the work do I think, oh, okay, I see some good photos. I’m sure we all experience this and I think it’s a necessary side effect.

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Danil, 6, has lymphoma. I walked into his apartment and he was playing within the curtains. I was lucky here, he just put his arms up into the air. Where’s he going?

The success of this story lies in the inhabitants of the town, those who have become sick of their lives. In the last installment I talked about meeting the right people; this is utmost and I was fortunate to have met Nelly. With her, I visited perhaps 40 people, all with varying degrees of sickness, some had been become healthy again, their cancers in remission, others were soon to die. With Nelly, I would conduct a general interview, just talking with them, taking some notes, getting a feel for them and who they were and most importantly, getting them comfortable with me. As Nelly said, nobody who is dying wants their picture taken. So how to overcome that? This is where I always struggle, and the point of exploitation of your subjects for personal gain. I firmly believe in what I’m doing; I believe in this story and I believe that these photos will eventually lead to something. If it’s the minimal, a person stopping in the magazine to read just a few lines all the way up to Eugene Melnyk deciding to donate medicine from his pharma company Biovail, (are you reading this, Eugene?) then of course we have to pursue these stories. We have to look at the greater good of what photography can do.

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On my very first day into the city, we went to meet our only contact, a radio host for evangelical programming in the city. I couldn’t believe it when I went to the church, easily over 200 people were there. A huge number for such a small town, and it’s an Evangelical Church. Apparently they get a bigger turnout then the Orthodox Church. I made a mental note that I will come back and take some photos. They allowed me five minutes. Good thing I had newspaper training! Anyway, when I saw the people in church it definitely influenced the way I would approach the story, obviously faith meant a lot in a town that was catastrophically sick.

Being a photographer is not about how skillful you are with a camera – it’s about how skillful you are in everything else. Can you relate to people? Do you have anything to say? Do you recognize not just when to press the shutter but recognize what a good story is? Again, I evangelize, but without questioning who you are and what you are then we cannot make or say anything of value. When I’m working and when I’m not working, I constantly struggle with these questions. Questioning your motives and methods is utmost of value; complacency is a death sentence. But, this is a photographers forum and we need concrete analysis of photography.

So I’ll try to shed some light on my methods. Firstly, I have no methods. I just try to make a connection with people, have them gain trust and confidence in me as a photographer. At times it is quite easy, you know when you naturally get along with someone. Other times it’s a difficult pursuit. On this project, I would come back a second, third and occasionally a fourth time. I generally look for one photo of any given situation. I do not work for newspapers and rarely magazines, I do not need to provide a wide coverage of one “event,” I’m interested in only the single best photo I can produce of the given situation. Over time, when I begin to edit, do all the photos start to relate to each other. Once I find an angle or light or whatever it is that feels best, I stick to it. At times during a day, I take hundreds of frames, others barely the equivalent of a roll of film. There are times when I get back at the end of the day and punish myself for not filling all my flash cards – Don, you didn’t work hard today, one card is barely full. As a side note, when I first started freelancing at the Globe, I would not leave an assignment until I filled up a card, I wanted to just keep taking photos until the exact right one came along. I still do that, I can easily stand for hours taking the same photo. However, some of my favourite photos of just been a single click of the shutter or a few clicks. These are the times when the best pictures come, just seeing and feeling, instinctively knowing that you should press the shutter. Voila, a photo. Just because you shot 1,000 frames that day doesn’t mean there’s a good photo in there.

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Part of the problem with Zholtie Vodi (amongst many others) is that the city was built using uranium waste from the enrichment factory, thus many homes and apartments are contaminated. Again, it’s essentially dust and how to photograph a brick? I wanted a photograph that had a sense of architecture and was visibly domestic but also adding an air of mystery. I think this works. I also photographed private homes as well, so for the final edit I’m not sure what will make it. I hope this one does, I like the colour! And, speaking of colour, everything is in-camera with just some tweaks with levels and curves and getting the right colour balance. Amazing what you can do with shutter speed, aperture, ISO, etc. I believe this was shot at 3200 ISO. I love noise, it’s another layer to add to the photo.

One of the other concerns of this project, was how do I photograph uranium and radiation? It’s not like coal or a steel mine; radiation is dust and virtually invisible. It’s also highly deadly and a very unspoken of technology still commonly used. We talk of nuclear energy as ‘clean’ energy and this is exactly what I wanted to confront with this story in Zholtie Vodi and in ‘Post Atomic’ in general. If it’s so clean, then why are people dying? Should we be pursuing uranium mining? What are some issues with uranium mining? For me this work boiled down to two basic photographic elements, the person who has been affected by the radiation and the landscape that has become contaminated. It was bizarre, Zholtie Vodi is actually quite a pretty town, I was caught off guard. Goddamn imagination ran wild! Anyway, as I was working, I realized I could use the language of the landscape to allude to something sinister, evil, deadly. I kept on the lookout for landscapes or other photos that might have had some sort of ethereal, nightmarish quality to it. What was the light doing? What was happening in the space? Perhaps it’s not a literal radiation sign or even a person with three arms, but we are photographers and have to push the limits and language of what we do.

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Vika, with her great-grandmother. Vika’s mother was raped and murdered three years ago. She now lives were her retired grandparents who exist on about $150 per month. Vika also has muscular dystrophy. Her mother was a worker at the the uranium enrichment factory. In fact, most of the residents here have some sort of direct connection to the uranium mine or the enrichment factory, with their offspring contracting some sort of disease.

I took a lot of risks on this project, I’m not sure if it works or not, we’ll see when the edit comes together. I shot a lot from the car, I purposely blew out highlights, slow shutter speeds, etc. I do not like literal photos. This town is radioactive, thus I should have a radiation sign. This person won the lottery, here he is with a giant bloody cheque. Etc. We need to move and provoke and elevate our stories when they’re on the page. We owe it those we photograph to the magazines that support us and the readers that choose to read or view work. People are not dumb, so let’s not make dumb pictures. Let’s challenge each other and challenge what is being said in a photograph. Carl De Keyzer recently said on the Magnum website, that his photographs are reality and also unreal. It’s up to the viewer to decide. In other words (again, don’t freak out I am not talking about photoshopping missiles or anything) we have to engage the subjects and the audience and have them become a part of the process. Photography is not finished when the button presses. Our legacy is the image on a piece of paper, or, currently, on a monitor.

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