Donald Weber shares his vision on current trends, topics and problem zones of the “New East”, dwells on the difference between inspiration and copying and provides young artists with universal advice by challenging them to answer several dozens of “wh-questions”

When looking at his harsh rough series shot all across Eastern and Central Ukraine, Kiev, Donbass, Moscow and Siberia, Chernobyl zone and protesting Maidan, one can start doubting he is Canadian. Donald Weber feels the post-soviet illogical chaos with such a profound intensity, that his shoes really seem to be too tight to fit his North American origin. Still not sure? Check up his Instagram hashtags where he uses the Russian slang with #pizdato and #pizdets words his vocabulary has adopted with a native soviet’s natural grace and ironic ease. Seven years of working at his projects in the ex-USSR region obviously did not go unnoticed. The recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lange-Taylor Prize, the Duke and Duchess of York Prize and two World Press Photo Awards, now Donald Weber continues his soviet Odyssey from time to time giving lectures and workshops around the world. Weber is often invited to jury international photo contests, one of which – the recent “The New East Photo Prize” where he could use his knowledge and passion for the region to assess the submitted entries. 

Donald Weber

Donald Weber. Photo by Massimo Mastrorillo

Bleek Magazine: The information on “The New East Photo Prize” shortlisted projects recently announced online was followed by your critical remarks. What is your opinion on the quality of the submitted series and the overall performance level and the visual language of the contemporary Eastern European photography? 

Donald Weber: I need to say that for me jurying any competition is a moment of panic, because my first reaction starts with wondering whether anything good will appear at all. But then luckily something not just good but great always finds its way out – and thus you have faith in photographic humanity again. Among “The New East Photo Prize” applicants there were definitely a few projects that I felt were incredibly strong and could surpass not just original competition, but be on the best platforms anywhere. I am not going to say specifically because we still have to determine the winner and I think it would be a little unfair. Actually, if you look at 18 projects on the top, all of them are pretty solid. There are naturally a few that are rising on the top of the others, but in all the shortlisted projects there is solidity. And I also like the fact that there is a nice cross-section all around the New East.  There is no specifically the USSR, the Balkans or something like that. We could see projects from Bosnia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, there are two Latvians and one even from Kyrgyzstan.

On the flip side of the fact that all the projects come from such a vast area, one tendency can also be discerned. We are starting to see a lot of repetition that has nothing to do with particularly the region the photographers are from. It is more connected to the very way the photography goes. And this tendency does not have to deal only with the visual sphere – it has always gone like that with certain affairs, trends and looks people adopt in their real practice without really understanding why they are appropriating this technique or that style of that aesthetic. Thus, the whole process might become much more about the end result rather than the story or the idea that the photographer wants to express.

Donald Weber

Photo: Donald Weber, from the series “Prologue” (“Interrogations”)

I found many of the shortlisted photographers to be very diverse in their outlook, they seem to clearly understand who they are, what they want to say and why they are saying it and thus find an appropriate language to say it.

The ones that did not make it were just adopting a photographic language without knowing why. It is not necessarily the “New East” thing, to a larger extent it can be named as a global trend today. I mean obviously all the photographers might succumb to it and of course I cannot expect to have all hundreds of submissions to be interesting and original. But I still think that we need to rely less on the outcome and more on the understanding of what we are trying to say.

Bleek Magazine: Does it mean that looking at Eastern European photography it is difficult to identify some topics and trends that would be characteristic only of this particular region? 

Donald Weber: I need to notice that when speaking about Eastern European photography, at least in terms of the period of the last 6-7 years, I am more specifically talking about Russia, Belarus and Ukraine and that part of the world. I only became familiar with the Balkans not long ago, so when making the generalized statements about the region, I still keep in mind mostly those countries and yet not a broader geographic area.

In January this year I was on a faculty exchange at Art Academy in Vilnius, Lithuania, where I happened to talk to a local photographer Andrew Mikshys a former teacher of that very academy. And during the discussion about what was going on with Eastern European photography he noted that nowadays it is presented with very high-quality work and very solid ideas, which at the same time appear to be extremely dense and sometimes even impossible to penetrate into what the photographer was trying to communicate. The visual language the photographers were using was very abstract.

One of the possible explanation deals with historical aspect of the visual traditions of the region. Both in the Baltic countries and within a larger area of the former Soviet Union for a long time a specific style of traditional black and white documentary reportage used to be very popular – now still used by people who are closer my age – in their 30s and early 40s. A newer generation, people in their 20s, have more opportunities to be abroad, to be connected with a larger global audience – and thus to suck in other influences which is obviously a good thing. But Andrew made a good point and I have to agree with him that many photographers of that area are now so desperate to outrace or forget their history that they come to be totally ignoring their connection back to the past.

When we look, say, to the west or to Asia or to New York, we would be able to see photographers who are completely discarding their own histories however difficult they may be, or however much they might not actually be fond of that kind of photography. But the topics they choose come to them in quite a natural way – all art comes from a historical presence, and it is logical that you have to understand your history in order to move forward.

Donald Weber

Photo: Donald Weber, from the series “Prologue” (“Interrogations”)

Another trend that I noticed in the photography that comes from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia is their very homogeneous look. It was very difficult for me to tell where the photographer comes from, because the language one has adapted was often slightly misunderstood. There is a great article right now on Calvert Journal about Russian rap on how it needs to stop overly appropriating American black culture because it says nothing relevant to the Russian culture. The basic tropes that the Russian gangster-rap use in their videos, such as blank-eyed girls and guys with the money, hammers and all this kind of stuff, is very symbolic for the American rap culture but in terms of the Russian culture symbols they come as “personless” or impersonal! They show no way of how larger historical context is reflected in them.

Bleek Magazine: In one of your interviews you said that to be a good photographer one has to just “sit down and listen” to what is going on around, to get genuinely involved by people and their stories. Following the comparison with the appropriation of the American rap language by the Russian singers, can we then conclude that one of the main troubles with a younger generation is that instead of looking around and trying to analyze what is going on in their own societies, they prefer to borrow “formal instruments” from the world to which they actually do not belong. 

Donald Weber: Yes, that is exactly it. And I hope that does not sound like me in my early 40s preaching like, “Oh, those kids today…” That was not my intention, but what I strongly believe is that we need to maintain some kind of identity. Of course, the first counterargument would be directed to me personally, “Who are you to say that? Look at yourself coming to Ukraine and Russia and working there. That’s not your backyard! So, why should I have stay in mine?” But the point is not about staying in or out of one’s backyard – it is more about understanding roots and heritage and how that could really influence you in what it is that you interpret.

I could never tell a story about Ukraine in the Ukrainian way but I can tell it in the Canadian way, through a different filter. But in doing anything I keep in mind that the story needs to remain communicative both to the local and broader audience.

Donald Weber

Photo: Donald Weber, from the series “Prologue” (“Interrogations”)

For me a really successful example of a group of photographers who still maintain their historical and cultural identity, their socio-political roots are some of the photographers form Bangladesh – like Munem Wasif, Sarker Protick and others. They have been able to penetrate a larger global audience and still to me they remain very much culturally influenced by where they come from and who they are. And I find this blend of modern and at the same time with their minds very much in their place extremely intriguing.

Whereas looking at the Eastern European photography sometimes it feels like they are running so fast to find a go somewhere else, as long as it is not where they came from. And that could be dangerous.

Bleek Magazine: And why do you think young people do not take enough time and effort to look around and research their roots and identity? Does it have to do with the feeling of alienation towards the “Sovietness”, the emptiness that has come to replace it in the minds of the young generation representatives? 

Donald Weber: Yes, I think a lot of that has to do with alienation. But also with seeking future opportunities and facing the new freedom of being able and really longing to go somewhere. From many submissions I could feel that the photographers were almost making an assumption. It was like, “If I want to be a famous artist or a famous photographer, I have to do it this way. So, I assume I have to appropriate the photographic language of, say, Ryan McGinley or somebody like that”. Of course, such a strategy could be good but you have to understand that when you are appropriating the photographic language or any other forms, you also have to really understand the roots of where that cultural byproduct originates from.

Three years ago I was in Belgrade where I met a young Belarussian photographer. The work he was showing me was really nice, it was good but when I looked at it I said, “Where does this come from? Is this Tokyo, is this Minsk, Toronto or Amsterdam? To me it says nothing about place.” He had an interesting eye and it was clear that the photography was really able to say something but to me it was saying nothing. I felt it was cutureless. Too broad and too vague. It just more about the adaptation of somebody else’s language – semi-naked scenes made of point-and-shoot cameras with a flash, a sort of “skateboard aesthetics” I guess you could call it. It was more about how you are doing it than about what it is that you are feeling and being involved with.

Donald Weber

Photo: Donald Weber, from the series “Interrogations”

Bleek Magazine: And I think another popular trend deals with photographers who are focused mainly on showing their own emotions and “inner world”, which ultimately seems like shooting a project without leaving your room. I don’t know if it happens because they are afraid to confront the reality outside of their comfort zones or because of what Rob Hornstra once called the “selfishness” of contemporary photography. 

– Yes, that’s true. I totally agree! Robert and I are privileged enough to be teaching at the University so we are also dealing with the mainstream generation of photographers. In my class specifically I have 17 students and 10 of them are doing what I call “personal” projects. Somehow, of course, every work should be personal. But here I mean “personal” in a way Francesca Woodman was doing it, a project “only just about me, my own issues and tortures”. And nowadays I think it is getting a little too much…it is becoming definitely a huge topic.

When jurying “The New East Photo Prize” I saw that every second work was about “this is my issue and this is how I am trying to reconcile it photographically”. But it meant nothing to me! Because how can I penetrate into what you are thinking if you do not put enough effort into communicating it to me in a clear way? So, I agree that in a way photography is really becoming a very selfish or narcissistic act. Certainly, private emotions and human foibles can be seen as an advantage and as a photographer you have to have some kind of motivation to start your work. But I also believe that great photography rises past the creator and it can really communicate with the audience regardless of the fact whether you are a 75-year-old woman from Brazil or a 6-year-old from Moscow. I honestly believe that we need to have an ability to speak to others rather than to each other.

Bleek Magazine: And on what conditions can this depth be reached? 

Donald Weber: Well, I ask my students all the time the same set of questions starting from “Who are you?” and “What are you trying to say?” Other questions I address them are “What interests you?”, “What are the values that you hold?”, “Who and what motivates and inspires you?”, “What gets you thinking?”, “What makes you mad or angry?”, “What makes you want to go out and protest?”, “What do you love?” and “What do you want to be a part of?” There are so many different things that you need to have as a photographer. And when you start understanding and fueling your body and soul with this… I don’t want to call it “inspirations” but just – “things in your life”… then you start being able to make great work. There is nothing wrong with pursuing your own relationships with your parents, or your grandparents, or your girl-friend, or your boy-friend or whatever. But I also believe it is more than just “my family is this” of “myself is this”. On those conditions you can make a great work. But a lot of the times what I see in the works of young photographers is just something very much internal.

If we look at Francesca Woodman who in this regard is seen as an ideal and she obviously is, we would see that her work is incredibly personal but at the same time is incredibly powerful and relevant. I mean I am profoundly moved by her, despite the fact that she was living in a completely different era and was dead by the time I was born. But still she could move me! How could she do it, moving both me and millions of other people all over the world? The secret is in getting away from this density of the self which is seen as irrelevant past you!

Donald Weber

Photo: Donald Weber, from the series “Prologue” (“Interrogations”)

Another thing that I do not understand is that if your work is so personal, so involved, then why are you showing it the world? And why are you entering the competitions? Why are you showing it in the galleries? If it is just a cathartic way, still whatever it is, then why is it going to a larger audience? Because if you are determined to go to a larger audience, you need to find some kind of relevance with it.

Bleek Magazine: And what do your students answer you when you ask them all these questions? 

Donald Weber: Not much. And by asking them these questions, I do not want to tell them, “No, you cannot find your own way”. I offer my own opinion about what is valid to me but if someone is really determined to go, I am going to help them make the best project they can. The point is about being incisive and inquiring enough and being able to come to your own turn but also to believe. You know, every photojournalist has to go through making a story about drug addicts, homeless people or alcoholics. Let us make this happen once and never let it happen again! And luckily after that many students come to understand that they need to be looking for universal themes. Looking for larger global connections.

For example, if someone is depressed and wants to make a project about it, then why don’t they start asking first a question, “What is depression? Is it about feeling isolated or conflicting about modern society?” Why don’t they try to bring it into a much broader perspective and start using different ways and different projects that express the same thing that you yourself are revealing? In my opinion, that is the whole point of being an artist, that’s what an artist does!

Bleek Magazine: And how can one determine the difference between being “inspired” by the artist and “copying” the artist? 

Donald Weber: Inspiration is a sort of understanding or, at least from my perspective, being inspired by an artist is about knowing or trying to investigate the decisions that this artist makes. Why do I think that the artist chose to do it in this way? So, it is about my own sort of investigation and interpretations of who I believe this artist is like… All of us are sort of moved and inspired by certain artists, whereas about others we do not give a crap. And that’s okey, because we have to use our own understanding of our own personal situations and use it as a means and a method to investigate who the artist is. And maybe that would be a start for understanding of the motivation of this artist – why did (s)he choose this picture, why did (s)he go like this, why is (s)he interested in this topic or in this part of society? It is about trying to find relevance in my own work.

On the other hand, copying is just copying. Wolfgang Tillmans probably gets the biggest number of the most direct art copies. And people say, “Well, Wolfgang Tillmans is a popular photographer nowadays and that’s what I like about him, so I am going to get my pictures with a flash and photograph my friends and make pictures of hamburgers and then make them into small size pictures and stick on a big wall”. That is just copying and it means that you have no idea about why Wolfgang Tillmans is about, why he chooses to use that format, why he uses those subjects, so that’s a big thing. And a lot of people think that they actually are inspired or influenced by a particular artist but in reality they are just mimicking or copying what this artist has done. Without any understanding of the decisions they have made.

Bleek Magazine: Eternal searches for the answers to the questions of “why”…  

Donald Weber: We really do it! Every time we hold a workshop, and whenever I talk to somebody I say, “Why?” – “Well, because of this”. And then goes the next question “Why?” So, you can keep asking these “why-questions” until we get to the point when I cannot ask you why any more. And then it would mean that we have discovered something. So why, why, why?.. Every artist, I believe, has to know why they are doing something. Why am I an artist? Why have I chosen this subject? Why am I the one to tell this story? And then the next question is why do these things actually interest me? What are the subjects that I can find which I can use as vessels to communicate the story? And, lastly, how now can I tell a story? What sort of photographic method can I use? How will I communicate this?

And that for me is the order of importance. But number one is always why.

Donald Weber

Photo: Donald Weber, from the series “Interrogations”

Bleek Magazine: How do you think the photography will change in the course of time, with the boom in the technology development and obviously further development of the people’s minds? 

Donald Weber: Yes, that’s a good question. And that’s the whole other discussion! But that is also something I have been thinking a lot lately as well, because … you know as photography for a long time was or is essentially an object – it’s a piece of paper that is graded through light, a specific kind of technology, but today there are so many different ways to make images that are not camera-based. A classic example would be surveillance cameras that use data to create pictures. What happens when we have technologies reproduce reality, but the data they use might be composed entirely of ones and zeros? And to me that is incredibly profound question. Especially in a sphere of documentary photography which is so much attached to this idea of photographic truth and that the author and camera are always truthful… For me then, it has to switch the argument to “I don’t care about what technology you use but as an author you have to have some ethical or moral standing in making the decisions you choose to make”.

But I think it is a fascinating time to be a photographer now because there are so many diverse worlds that are splitting open that we can go down alongside with questioning the value of meaning of an image. For me that’s a great place to be!

Bleek Magazine: And if we imagine Francesca Woodman were living in our times, she would be making her portraits in a completely different way. 

Donald Weber: She would be 3D-scanning her body or making X-rays!

For me photography has always been about the collaboration between the photographer and the subject. But now we have all these surveillance technologies watching us… It is not only about photography being rebuilt but also about asking the permission of the subject and the idea of photography as collaboration is being completely disintegrated. It just doesn’t exist anymore! And that to me is another sort of development that happens now.

© Bleek Magazine. Interviewer: Olga Bubich