Making the leap from a career in architecture to one in documentary photography might not seem like an obvious choice. But like many of today’s most intriguing visual artists, the photographer Donald Weber—recipient of two World Press Photo Awards and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among various other honors—has a varied educational and professional history that informs his current work. An architect, after all, works with the physical spaces, both public and private, where people spend their day-to-day lives. As a documentary photographer, Weber’s interest in daily routines persists. In his first book, Bastard Eden, Our Chernobyl (2005), he posed a simple question: what is daily life like in a post-atomic world? In his stark new collection, Interrogations, he sharpens his focus on post-Soviet authority, documenting scenes from Russian and Ukrainian interrogation rooms. Now, the works are exhibited for the first time in Canada at Toronto’s Circuit Gallery in “Interrogations.”
Without knowing the series’ title or reading some background information on Weber’s work, you might not guess exactly what you’re looking at. The “Interrogations” series features individual figures—presumably criminal suspects of some kind—dramatically lit, bundled in winter coats, seemingly cornered in windowless rooms, standing out in sharp relief against dated floral wallpaper. Their expressions convey anguish or vulnerability: desperate sincerity, as in Interrogation XI, revulsion and self-protectiveness, as in Interrogation IX, or pure fear, as in Interrogation VIII (all 2010). The viewer can’t see the police officers or the larger setting—only the fearful subject. The effect is a powerful one; Weber’s work is a gripping exploration of power, and the abuse of it. “What I think is so powerful,” the artist has said, “is that this is not a rogue set of cops. This is standard practice, it is what it is. It’s the utter terror of a wayward bureaucracy.”
Unsurprisingly, the project, which was shot over seven years, has garnered widespread attention. Weber has since been featured in TIME and named a finalist in the 2014 Scotiabank Photography Awards—it’s no wonder his book is sold out, a fact that makes a visit to Circuit Gallery even more worthwhile.
“Donald Weber: Interrogations” is on view at Circuit Gallery, Toronto, Nov. 27–Dec. 20, 2014.