Photographer’s Blog – Day 5 – Donald Weber

I have read and talked with other photographers who say they never show up to a first meeting with their camera or they refuse to photograph then. I think that’s crap and dishonest to those whom you want to photograph. I always have my camera on display so the subjects can see just what it is that I do, my tool. By showing that you’re a photographer, that you’re there to take photographs – and yes you are taking something from them – then the initial ballet of photographer/subject can begin. Perhaps I won’t make a photo on that first or second or whatever visit, but there are times when the opportunity is right and you just do it, I have taken a photo immediately because I think it could be an important one. There are no set guidelines, just shoot when it’s appropriate. But I do believe that by not taking your camera out creates a false impression of who you are and your guidelines. The camera is a part of you. If it wasn’t you’d have a pen in hand.

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The morgue with a recent body. This woman had died from cancer I found out later from the coroner. This is where the fixer comes in handy. How do you ask someone that you want to photograph a dead body? Best leave it to the fixer, and Bob Pickles handled it well. And I think this is an important photograph, it needs to be included. As I mentioned in the blog, this was not a very visual story. No war, famine, or obvious signs of death. But everyone I met was living with a death sentence because of where they lived. I wanted to show that everyone in the photographs I took will most likely be dead within a few years. When I went to the morgue I was “hoping” to see a body that had died from effects of living in Zholtie Vodi. I hate sounding callous like this, but we all secretly “wish” for something when taking photos. I think we have to look at the bigger picture and understand how our photos can potentially help the situation we choose to tell.

As the photos evolve, so, too, does the story. I constantly have a notebook at hand for all my notes, ideas, sketches, contacts, whatever, everything goes into this book. Over time the notes change, things get crossed out added edited and deleted. I constantly update the book with a vague “script,” a shooting schedule of sorts that contains ideas for photos or planned photos I will take. In point form, I begin to construct the edit and the story. In this case, I had written the following about half way into the project:

* milk kitchen
* cancer moms
* gravediggers
* breast cancer woman with granddaughter
* nuke site, contamination
* salvation, communion, absolution
* evangelicals
* liturgy
* cancer ward
* birds
* architecture
* dima, bald head after chemo
* white white white green

The list goes on, and over time things got deleted or subtracted or completed. Some things on the list were specific, others metaphorical or vague. These are just catch phrases to stimulate my brain or things I wanted to think about while shooting. I also boiled down the project to its utter core, everything I would shoot should fit into this theme – God and Science. This was something I talked about with Nelly, about her faith in God that she contracted cancer for a reason – to help those like her – but also her faith in science, that she would be cured by the very technology that killed her. Contradictory, but then also something that elevated this story beyond it’s simple concept. I really get tired of looking at stories of any sort that are just literal interpretations of what’s in front of you. Look closer, think closer, and you’ll see that it’s more than just what is laid out in front of the camera. I have always worked like this and always will. Of course surprises happen, nothing can be scripted, but it also allows me to develop the story as I go on. There are times when you’ll need a specific photo to progress the story or to create a certain mood. Without my notes and my book, I think I would be lost, shooting wildly and focusing in on the story at hand. Lastly, and I think the pervading theme of my blog post to date, has been to stimulate your brain, think coherently and clearly but also be open to contradictions or any other influences that will guide you when working on a project. Don’t impose a will over the photograph but have a genuine faith and trust and respect for your subjects; the pictures will follow, you’ll know when to press the shutter – the least important task of all.

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The saddest story of them all. Which is very profound as everyone I met had a difficult story. Anna, 72, has bone cancer. She contracted it about a year ago. Her husband, a former miner, died about 6 months ago. One day he was healthy, within two months he was dead. Her son was killed in Afghanistan. She lives alone and everyday lies on the sofa. She does not watch TV, read or do anything except, as she says, “wait for death.” What really pisses me off though is that apparently her cancer was a mild for and could’ve been in remission. But many doctors here instead of treating old people basically give them the cheapest “cure” to get rid of them. I heard time and again from people that they are essentially given a “menu” for treatment. What can you afford? Anna, unfortunately, could not afford the $200 it would’ve cost to at least keep her healthy and able to read or watch TV.

Finally, we reach the end. And just when do you know when you’ve found that end? One day I wake up and I know there are no pictures left in me to take. I just simply cannot go forward, my body, my brain, perhaps the subjects, notify you to go home. With this project, I sensed my time was up a few days before planned. I had hoped to finish it within a month, but the rigours of this peculiar project had exhausted me, and I felt I was beginning to become a burden to those I was photographing. Constantly showing up at someone’s house, not as a guest but as a photographer, wears you out as well as the subject. At times it’s best just to move on make a plan for coming back. So I left and made plans to come back in the summer for another week or two. There were a few photos I was hoping to get from my list, but either the situation wasn’t right or I just wasn’t in the right place at the right time. But I have laid a very solid framework with connections and ideas and direction as to where this story will go. Most importantly, I met some incredible people and became a witness to a place surrounded by death and a bureaucratic destruction of a city’s health.

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This is the site from a former uranium mine. I liked the colours and texture and tones when I was photographing. Then the dog showed up and gave it something extra. I have a few versions of this, some slightly more different. I was disappointed at first, I thought the dog was going to be to small to see, but when I got home it was perfect, any bigger and it loses the subtlety. It’s like the grim reaper’s pet.

Starting on this project, I had no idea where it would go or what I would see. I have yet to edit, but I emerged from a few dark months towards a very positive future. What I love about being a photographer is the ability to ground yourself. So frequently we get lost in our own concerns and cares that we lose track of just really what is valuable. I have enough in this world, it’s not a lot, but as Nina Simone once sang:

Ain’t got no home no shoes no money no class; ain’t got no friends no schooling no work no job and no money,

Ain’t got no father no mother no children no aunts and uncles or cousins or anybody just myself, no wine no pot,

Ain’t got no country and no class, no schooling and no money, no home no clothes and no love, no faith,

Yeah I ain’t got no nothing, no.

Well then what have I got? Why am I alive anyway? Yeah what have I got?

But there’s something that I got,

nobody can take away.

I got my hair on my head my legs my eyes my nose my mouth, I got my smile.

I got my chest my legs my neck my heart and soul, my back, got myself, got my arms my fingers my legs my nose and my liver, got headaches got toothaches, got my blood, I got freedom,

I got life.

* I got life – and in the end, it’s a lot more than those I have been privileged to photograph, for they got no.

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Sergei. He has cancer, which is in remission now. This guy was a blast to hang around with, very gracious and very funny. I wanted a domestic scene, something just normal between a man and his wife. When I met Sergei, I asked if we could come by one day while he was having dinner with his wife. I didn’t want to be a guest but rather a photographer, so we showed up unannounced, I never made a specific date. People here are incredibly hospitable so by making a date I knew we would be the guests of honour and well I wouldn’t be really able to take photos. It turned out that his wife also was sick with a heart condition. They are both living off their pensions now. I’m not sure if I got a good photo of them together, but I know when I go back what to look for. Many times I go into a place and log into my head so when I return I know what I’m looking for. Surprises are great, but sometimes you also have to be calculating in what is going to happen.

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Another landscape. I like the weird colours, and the person in the distance. Sort of hazy, are they walking through a fog of radiation?

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