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Photojournalist Don Weber Penetrates The Russian Underworld

When one of Russia’s tattooed, prison-hardened ‘Zeks’ challenged Don Weber to fight, the Toronto-born photojournalist quickly and accurately assessed that he was in over his head, swallowed hard, and said, ‘Okay, let’s fight.’

His refusal to back down was enough to diffuse the situation, and more importantly, helped open the door to a world few have the gumption or guts to infiltrate.

When his manhood was put to the test by a drunken, criminally ‘connected’ mayor, who challenged him to fire a Red Army pistol at a precariously balanced vodka bottle 75 metres away, Weber, equally inebriated, woozily grabbed the gat, mumbled a brief prayer and squeezed the trigger, sending shards of glass and misty spirits into the air when the bullet somehow found its mark.

More often than not, thankfully, Weber’s trigger finger is nestled on the shutter button of his camera.  But before he can gain access to some of his more extreme subjects, many of which scurry for survival in the dark underbelly of Eastern Europe, he must prove himself in the eyes of men who instinctually sniff out signs of weakness.

Whether that entails firing a gun, accepting a fight, or engaging in marathon vodka drinking sessions, he’ll do what it takes to penetrate the lives of the people and places he sets out to document.

Don Weber

That unwavering sense of ballsy dedication to visual storytelling has paid off.  

He was the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2007, has received the Lange-Taylor Documentary Prize, a World Press Award, and has shot assignments for Newsweek, Maclean’s, and Rolling Stone to name a few. 

His work documenting life in Chernobyl, the criminal Zeks, Soviet execution sites and crime and punishment in Ukraine, has gained worldwide attention and he’s currently represented by the VII Network, alongside shutter behemoths like James Nachtwey.

His credentials may be impressive, but Weber didn’t always see a bright future for himself in photography.

“In high school I wanted to be a photojournalist, and I went to a special art school, and starting when you are 16 you specialize in a field, and I did photography.  So in November of my Grade 13 year, you’re trying to apply to colleges, and I was looking at two colleges, so I said to my photo teacher, ‘Which school should I apply to?’ and he said, ‘Neither…you sort of suck as a photographer.’  And I thought ‘Yeah, I do suck as a photographer,’ so that day, literally that day, I put down my cameras and I didn’t take a picture for another 9 or 10 years.”

Instead, he switched gears and became a successful architect, winning a Governor’s General Gold medal for his work in Canada and spending time overseas at Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in Rotterdam, before finally finding his way back to his original calling.

While living in Europe he bought a camera. 

Once it was in his hands, he couldn’t let go.

“I remember the first time I picked it up, I had that feeling of the camera in my hand and thought, ‘this is what I’m meant to do.’ ”

“To go from being an architect to a photojournalist is not exactly easy, it’s not a normal shift, so it took me about two years of thinking how to do it,” he admits. 

“It wasn’t until 2001 that I said ‘ok now I’m going to do it.’ ”

First he had some unfinished adventuring to attend to.  Weber planned a motorcycle trip across Africa, but crashed and totaled his bike in Toronto just days before it was to be shipped overseas.  While brushing the gravel off, he stared at his ruined bike and decided it was time to get to work.

“It was at that moment, I remember standing up and going ‘okay that’s it, I’ll be a photographer now.’ ”

FROM THE TORONTO SUN, TO RUSSIA AND UKRAINE

Weber went on to land an internship with the Toronto Sun, but it wasn’t long before he became restless with the nature of single shot newspaper photography.  Intent on putting himself in the thick of the action, he travelled to Ukraine during a tumultuous time in the country’s history. 

“In Late 2004 I went to Ukraine to do the Orange Revolution…and I just did that because at the time it was the biggest news event and I wanted to be a part of that, so I went on my own and I lasted about two, maybe three days on the main square, where everybody is dressed in orange, waving flags, and I was bored because I realized immediately that that was not what I was interested in, the daily news…I was more interested in why.

“So I immediately went to the eastern parts of the county where I heard the real dissent was happening…I wanted to know, ‘what were the reasons for this?’ Within my first week there I kind of stumbled upon a few stories that I knew I wanted to tell.  I pretty much knew that I had to photograph the lives of dissent.”

Weber diligently and rather quietly went about his work, until one photo propelled him into the spotlight. 

WORLD PRESS PHOTO AWARD

While documenting life in Chernobyl, Weber befriended a hard-drinking man named Victor, who would eventually become the subject of the now-famous photo, which depicts him tumbling down a hillside while desperately clutching a drink. 

It’s a jarring tragic comedy.

The two were the same age, and Weber couldn’t help but draw parallels between their lives, which were markedly different on the surface. “He was fascinating and he was exactly the same age as me…our birthdays were within days of each other.

“For me it was kind of interesting because I always thought ‘well this could be me.’  We could easily have changed places and this could be my life.”

Initially Weber didn’t think much of the shot, and had to be prodded to enter it into the prestigious contest.

“I kind of anticipated that something would happen because I remember him as a bit of a lush.  He liked to show off how great of a drinker he was but he wasn’t so great.  And he was sitting on this little hill and I just thought he’s going to go flying, I know it and he did.  And I took two frames, and I guess I was a little bit drunk myself because if you look at the photograph, the highlights are kind of blown out in the sky and the trees, and that’s why I hated it, and I’m not a technical photographer, but it really bothered me that I had sort of blown the photograph and I literally put it away. 

“And then my friend (fellow photographer Jim Ross) said, ‘you should enter it in World Press,’ and I had never entered World Press before, so I entered and didn’t think anything of it.  They released the results in February and I was in the middle of photographing in some tiny village in Chernobyl when my friend Jim called me to say that I had won.”

“Getting World Press is sort of the highest honour you can get as a photojournalist, I was completely unknown at that time.”

PHOTOGRAPHING THE ZEKS

It took Weber more than two years to gain access to the men who populate Russia’s criminal underclass.  Known as ‘Zeks’ they live by a long tradition of codes and rituals, and their rankings and criminal accomplishments are branded into their skin through symbolic tattoos.  As Weber notes, “…these guys are murderers and killers and thieves and they are not exactly the nicest people on the planet.”

Despite the trepidation the company of such men would instill in most, Weber knew he couldn’t show fear in their presence.

“They try to frighten you and intimidate you and I guess it’s a cliché where you say people can smell fear, and they can smell fear and they try to exploit that, and if you are showing fear…then you are not going to get anywhere.”

At the same time, Weber found them to be quite cooperative as subjects.

“They are incredibly vain and narcissistic and I play to their vanity,” he admits.  “I’m somebody who is showing them off I guess and they like that.  That’s what that world is all about.”

“When I actually started photographing them they were okay and I actually got along with them quite well…but I was worried because they have such a hierarchy and a protocol…like how you talk to somebody, how you shake their hand, it’s all very much based on respect for your elders.  And the only way you will know who your elder is, is by studying what tattoos they have on their bodies, on their hands, or whatever.”

“And I didn’t know that, I was still sort of naïve when it came to that, I think at times I treaded too cautiously.  What I realized is they are all about being men and proving that they’re men and trying to outman each other, so I just outmanned them,” he adds, noting his uncanny ability to out-drink many of the career criminals, not to mention calling the bluff of one who challenged him to a fistic battle.

CULTURE SHOCK

After spending so much time in Russia and Ukraine, Weber admits he finds it difficult adapting to life when he heads home to Toronto for a visit.

“When I come home I find it kind of bland here,” he admits.  “Kind of dry, not much happens, everybody is afraid of offending everyone else.  That’s what I like about Russia is they have a sense of life and things are short…they are kind of fatalists, it is what it is, you do what you do.

“I am nowhere near being done,” he notes of his work overseas.  “I think I’ve just started on something.  The problem is it’s such a vast, huge place to be and every person has an incredibly fascinating story to tell.  I guess it’s like anywhere, but it just seems to be that over there it’s a lot richer in terms of story telling.   

“Being over there I’ve seen a lot, I’ve seen a heck of a lot.  And it’s definitely affected me, it’s definitely changed the outlook that I have on my personal life…It’s an incredibly tough and brutal society, yet it’s also incredibly compassionate and hospitable.”

michaelt@citytv.com

MORE FROM DON WEBER:

On The Importance Of A Fixer:

“The fixer is probably the most important role I think for a photographer…basically what a fixer does, he’s basically an entrée into another place that you yourself probably couldn’t get access to.”

The Culture Of Drinking In Russia:

“Drinking is part of the culture and it’s not stereotypical and it’s not a cliché, it’s the truth.  And they’ve been drinking like this for hundreds of years, it’s just a Russian custom….I was with the Zeks, who were these former cons and current cons, you know rapists, thieves and murderers, not the greatest guys, with the police officers, with gangsters and criminal gangs, and every time the reason I got to be in there is because you go through the custom of having to drink vodka.”

Shooting His Way Out Of A Sticky Situation:

“So he pulled up his jacket and he pulls out a pistol  And he said, ‘this was my father’s pistol, he was seargent in Red Army,’  and it had a little emblem of the Red Army on the pistol.  And he said you take this gun…”

The State of Photojournalism:

“The last…6-8 months has been rather difficult, magazines are closing the ad rates are going down, the circulation’s are dropping, and so with that comes fear and people are fearful and it’s really odd because I was in New York a couple of weeks ago and it just seems everybody has no idea what’s happening but if one company lays off then the next feels like they have to lay off somebody.  And how that affects the photographer is nobody is willing to put up money for stories, and magazines and newspapers are all built on content but nobody is willing to pony up for that content, they want everything for free and that’s going to be dangerous because there are people who will do it for free and that’s going to affect the greater good of journalism…you are going to get watered down citizen reporting.  I was in Afghanistan a year ago and I’m trying to get funding to go back, and it’s a really good positive story but people aren’t even willing to split with $2000 on an airline ticket, so what’s going to happen, who is going to tell these stories?”

All colour photos by Don Weber

Black and white photos, Michael Talbot