“The unseen subject of these photographs is Power. They show us the human limits to the understanding of Power. There are many things we don’t know about Power. We don’t know if Power is the same everywhere, if its manifestation in one place and time is meaningful, measurable, subject to the same laws as another.”
– – Donald Weber, ‘Confessions of an Invisible Man’, Interrogations, pg. 158
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At passport control my fingerprints flagged an “interaction” with the police authorities five months prior. Directed to a waiting room, I was told to take a seat and remain there until a customs and immigration officer could clarify the details of said interaction.
I wasn’t told how long the wait would be.
Thumbing around in my bag for some reading material to pass the time, I broke a wry smile when I pulled out Donald Weber’s Interrogations. He’d mailed it a few weeks prior. This was the first chance I’d had to look it over.
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Held by a stitched spine, the 160 pages taper to the centre on the outside edge of the book (see image above).
Weber and publisher Schilt also made the decision to bind it in the same wallpaper stock that hangs on the wall behind many of the detainees. Weber has come to see the modern State as “a primitive and bloody sacrificial rite of unnamed Power.” The choice of the outmoded wallpaper is an unnerving nod to the Power of a throwback era and brings us closer to the outmoded policing within these outmoded spaces.
Weber spent months – possibly years – building a rapport with the police department in order to sit in on their questioning and to make photographs. “I would just sit there from 9am in the morning to the evening, and just wait. I went days without actually taking pictures. It’s a game of chicken, and I always flinch last,” Weber told Colin Pantall. I’m a little disappointed Weber doesn’t provide the name of the station or town it is in. All we know is that it is in Ukraine.
Interrogations is an unorthodox, shocking and depressing portraiture project. A juvenile, with words scrawled on his forehead in black marker-pen, sobs; a woman in a dirty sheepskin coat resembles more a carcass than a human; in a sequence of three images we witness one detainee first, terrified; second, threatened by an open palmed strike; and third, with a gun to his temple.
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I was sat awaiting the inconvenience of an unnecessary interview, but I was certainly not awaiting the psychological and physical abuse meted out to Weber’s subjects.
After our brief chat, the immigration officer asked me if I had any questions and assured me I wasn’t on camera. In a relatively powerless position, to not be recorded was a small victory, I considered.
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This idea of being seen during an interview goes to the heart of Weber’s series.
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Here I was, subject to networked systems of law enforcement and U.S. Homeland Security, but I could be sure I’d not face the intimacy of abuse depicted in Weber’s photographs.
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The strength of Interrogations is that it teeters on an ethical dilemma: should Weber have been present? In attendance, was Weber complicit? Are his photographs further abuse and violation?
The answers are also easier to find than we might think.
I’d argue Weber’s presence had little to no effect on the behaviours of the interviewers. Given the time he spent in interrogation rooms (evidenced by 51 portraits no less) I’m inclined to subscribe to the reasoning that eventually a photographer’s presence is taken for granted/forgotten and behaviour is less and less effected by the camera-wielding observer.
Diane Smyth, for BJP, describes the interrogations as violating theatre, “Igor and his partners play good cop, bad cop (“or actually, really bad cop, and bad cop”), using threats and intimidation to break the suspects they are questioning in the seemingly anodyne pink room.” Weber sat in the stalls, watching.
One presumes that if Weber’s attendance did alter activities it was to lessen the abuse, not escalate it?
When we are faced with decidedly uncomfortable (abusive) scenes in photography, we cannot help ourselves but to think of the photographer as in some way complicit. This is a sure way to derail inquiry; it is an emotional response that centres on the act of photography instead of the subject. As Susie Linfield lays out in The Cruel Radiance, photography of atrocity can as easily provide an opportunity to dismiss the act, distance ourselves from the images, and move away from topic at hand.
Weber’s work is in our face, but that doesn’t mean we should turn away. An illustrated prologue of Weber’s six years in the former Soviet provide some context for Interrogations. These darker, exploratory more ambiguous images temper a presumption that Interrogations was a smash-and-grab job; we know Weber spent years in the region and that he built-up to this particular project.
Similarly, Weber’s essay, ‘Confessions’ and Larry Frolick’s epilogue provide insight into living within the milieu of policing, crime and punishment in Russia and Ukraine. These elements of the book together provide opportunities for us to enter into the complex society in which Weber lived and worked.
Bluntly put, the superimposed dilemma of a photographer’s ethics are the least of the concerns for the people in the region and in Weber’s photographs.
Weber provides no caption information for his subjects. Did he ever have access to it?
In his brief essay, Weber is aware of his role as photographer within a web of power (with a capital P); how else would he be granted entry to interrogation rooms? Weber puts the meaning of his photographs not fully on the lives of his unknown subjects, but in the context of institutional power.
“We do know that Power is dangerous and exhilarating,” says Weber in the book’s essay, “It expands in proportion to its invisibility.”
With that, instead of asking what does it mean for a photographer to witness institutional abuse, we should be asking what does it mean when there is no witness, photographer or otherwise?
Interrogations, (160 pages) by Donald Weber (2011)
Published by Schilt, Amsterdam.
Designed by Teun van der Heijden of Heijdens Karwei, Amsterdam.
Printed by Wachter GmbH, in Bönnigheim, Baden-Württemberg, Germany.
Distributed by Thames & Hudson worldwide. Distributed by Ingram in North America.