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Randy Innes essay

Catalogue essay

Beating the Bounds: Donald Weber’s Interrogations

by Randy Innes

I. The Latin term rogare means to ask for something. It is associated with ritual acts of supplication and prayer, and in the Catholic tradition Rogation Days replaced an earlier Roman ritual that included the sacrifice of a goat as a plea for healthy crops. Rogation Days themselves are days of abstinence and fasting that occur immediately before the Ascension. They remain associated with a prayer to God for a bountiful harvest.

In the Protestant tradition Rogation Days are associated with the social ritual of surveying and re-affirming the boundaries of one’s fields. Processions would walk around the boundaries of farms and parishes and leave fresh evidence of passage by hitting trees, rocks, stakes and other boundary markers with willow sticks. These processions were known as the Beating of the Bounds. They were ritual negotiations of limits: they re-established ownership of and demonstrated authority over a given territory. Mapmaking, surveying, and effective documentation and record keeping techniques all but eliminated the need for the Beating of the Bounds.

II. Donald Weber’s Interrogations is a set of photographs that are concerned with the act of surveying boundaries, with soliciting and gathering information, and with the exercise of authority. In this way this project carries the vestiges of its sacred-symbolic root rogare, and of its more secular, social ritual meanings. Weber’s Interrogations unfolds in two movements. The first is a Prologue that, in about two dozen photographs, surveys a cultural landscape that stretches from the Ukraine to Siberia. Photographs of run-down apartment blocks, of the regional landscape, and of impoverished urban settings combine with snapshots of unnamed people to present a portrait of a terrain that is often associated with post-Soviet states. The Prologue pictures the landscape in which the second movement will take place.

The photographs in the Prologue trace the boundaries of a bolshaya zona. Weber became familiar with this Russian slang expression during the time he spent in Ukraine and Russia, during and after the 2004 Orange Revolution. The expression conjures a place that remains just out of reach, an ideal or promised land.1 These photographs
create an impression and give us a sense of the character of this place, but they offer little in the way of documentary information. The Prologue is a study or survey – the studium, to recall Roland Barthes – but not yet the primary concern of the series.

The selection of pictures in the prologue negotiate the tension between photography’s function as a document or as evidence, and photography’s affective, compelling force.

III. The second movement in this project is called Interrogations. This related set of photographs shifts from survey or study, to a singular, repetitive examination. In more than three dozen photographs Weber pictures men and women seated alone in bare, wallpapered rooms in this same anonymous, eastern Ukrainian town. The photographs are visually uniform. They present a dull, faded colour palette and a run-down domestic feeling one might associate with small or medium sized, blue-collar towns. Here the slang term malinkaya zona dashes the desires that accompany the bolshaya zona, conjuring enforced boundaries, a sense of hopelessness, and, much more literally, to imprisonment and the loss of freedom within a broader system of power and authority.2

These men and women are detainees of a local police force and are for the most part ragged looking. None are named. In one image an arm enters from the side of the frame, holding a gun to a detainee’s head; in another a woman holds her hands to her head and seems to be braced for a blow from beyond the frame; in another a man cries; and in yet another, a man gesticulates in a way that suggests a feigning of innocence or ignorance. Who, me?

While the ritual that takes place in the interrogation room is grounded in real social and political conditions, it carries with it a sense of group performance and theatricality. The police interrogator solicits information from detainees, individuals who are, in this setting, drawn from the shady sub-cultures that form the local underworld. In turn the detainees perform their role—the role made visible here in exaggerated gestures and fearful dispositions. Although some form of economy and exchange may be at work, this is conditioned by an exercise of power that becomes visible in Weber’s photographs only in its effects. The invisibility of the power source has a symbolic correlate: Weber views this project in part as “a way to see the modern State as a primitive and sacrificial rite of unnamed Power.”3

The interrogation is a reminder of boundaries and of authority, a reminder that, under these conditions, has to be repeated at intervals, isolated from the bureaucracy of paperwork and procedure, in order to maintain its effectiveness within the dynamics and rituals of the streets and the underworld. However the interrogator is just as concerned with reaping information and with the fruits of his harvest as he is with leaving reminders of the power and authority he has over his domain – of beating the bounds.

An interrogation is a formal practice, a performance that is a reminder and affirmation, each time, of the balance and nature of power. Interrogation preserves the importance and richness of the present of the interrogation itself, while ensuring a role and a need for future interrogations.

IV. Weber and his camera collaborate in this performance, along with interrogator and detainee. The photographer gained the trust of several key people over a number of years, including the police investigator, who came to trust Weber enough to allow him to attend the interrogations. A next step involved soliciting permission from detainees. Not all were interested in having their interrogation photographed.

Weber sat in a chair in the interrogation room and set up his camera with a view of the detainee. Like the interrogation itself, the camera preserves a particular link to the present of the event. The authority of interrogation derives in part from a repeated and repeatable present. In this way interrogation intersects with the practice of photography, which is also a repeatable practice bound to a given moment in time that circumscribes and organizes this moment into a visual field.

Photography solicits and organizes its harvest according to its own means. These means are never neutral or invisible: the repeated, simple structure of this series concentrates attention on the event of interrogation and on the structure of photographic capture, concentrating attention and reducing distraction. Photography becomes an integral part of the production of meaning (not only its reproduction) and here the processes of soliciting and surveying take precedence over information related to the detainee. “No matter how much we bear witness”, Weber says, “I am always an ingredient.”4

Each of the participants plays a role in this performance. The detainees perform for both the interrogator, and the photographer and his camera. In turn, the actions of the interrogator and of the photographer unfold in response to those of the detainees.

Interrogations offers a glimpse of a landscape whose disposition is determined by secularized rituals and a concentration of power and authority. As we are conditioned by what we see, so too are we conditioned by how we are seen.

1. Weber in conversation with the author, September 12 2014.
2. Weber in conversation with the author, September 12 2014.
4. Weber in conversation with the author, September 12 2014.

Randy Innes, November 2014
©Randy Innes. All Rights Reserved.


Randy Innes holds a PhD in Visual & Cultural Studies from the University of Rochester. He has taught at several universities and he contributed to significant developments at the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa.

His research interests include the history and theory of photography, museum theory and exhibition practice, and aesthetic theory. Randy held the History of Photography research fellowship at the National Gallery of Canada, and he has published research and exhibition essays on historical and contemporary photography, along with other topics. An article on Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin appears in the special issue of the Canadian Art Review (RACAR) dedicated to War and Photography (Fall 2014).


Donald Weber: Interrogations

Donald Weber, Interrogations
Donald Weber, Interrogation X, 2010


Interrogating the Interrogator: Donald Weber’s award-winning photography project Interrogations set for Canadian premiere in new exhibition

Toronto, ON, November 18, 2014Circuit Gallery is pleased to present an exhibition of work by Donald Weber from his award-winning project Interrogations, seen here for the first time in Canada.

The exhibition features twelve large-format photographs of suspected criminals being subjected to intense interrogation in an unnamed police station somewhere in Ukraine. This powerful series is accompanied by a selection of smaller photographs, which serve as a prologue.

Weber spent seven years traveling throughout Ukraine and Russia in an effort to understand and show something of life in the post-Soviet era. He observed how, since the collapse of Communism and its replacement with free-market Capitalism and an ostensible democracy, people are negotiating their places between ideologies, past and promised, and within “the system”.

Over the course of his research Weber became increasingly preoccupied with the subject of Power as exercised by the modern state, and how it deploys an all-encompassing theatre for its subjects. Amassed, his gritty photographs offer a complex portrait of people and a place, haunted by the past, and disillusioned with the present and its failure to provide a promised future.

Interrogations is the culmination of this seven-year project and a sharp distillation of subject and theme—one that seeks to go beyond the specificity of time, place, and individual, to reveal something more universal about the human situation.

Power is invisible, an abstract concept to which we are all subject. It can only be represented through its effects and consequences, its symbols and subjects (victims and perpetrators). Weber’s photographs from inside the interrogation room are simple stark images offering complex scenes.

Having gained the trust and permission of both the policeman and detainees to take photographs, Weber, as third party witness to the unfolding dramas (including the violent threats, aggression, and intimidation tactics of the policeman) focused his lens on the suspects, the men and women (and youth) who for whatever reason are brought in for questioning and find themselves in the room, subjected to interrogation.

Weber withholds context and specificity. We are not given information as to who they are, or the what, where, or why of their circumstance. Reduced to the confines of the room and to a succinct grammar of gesture and expression, Weber adeptly offers a series of types revealing a range of emotion and reaction: angry, defiant, pleading, ashamed, terrified, scheming, pliant, resigned.

We are unable to adjudicate guilt or innocence here. The implied indictment, it would seem, is not of the people portrayed nor is it limited to former Soviet states, but rather of the very idea of “the system” and the larger abuse of power and authority. The interrogator, rarely seen in the photographs, becomes the embodiment of Power itself in these emblematic dramas played out on the small stage, within the confines of the room.

This is a work which intelligently asks and invites all sorts of interesting and important questions about photography and the photographic situation as much as it does about the interrogations themselves.

Interrogations is the third exhibition for Circuit Gallery @ Prefix ICA, a new presentation partnership where the commercial gallery is sharing exhibition space with the highly respected Prefix ICA in the destination landmark arts building at 401 Richmond Street West in Toronto.

The exhibition is curated by Claire Sykes with a catalogue essay by Randy Innes.

Donald Weber is a photographer fascinated by the subject of power (be it economic, political, or psychological) and how it deploys an all-encompassing theatre for its subjects. His Interrogations project and accompanying book (Schilt, 2011) has received notable recognition and accolades from World Press Photo, PDN, Aperture, and many others. It was preceded by Bastard Eden, Our Chernobyl (2008) which won the Photolucida Book Award. Weber’s numerous awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Duke and Duchess of York Photography Prize, and two World Press Photo prizes. Most recently he was shortlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Photography Award. He is a member of the acclaimed VII Photo agency and is represented by Circuit Gallery (Toronto).

Randy Innes holds a PhD in Visual and Cultural Studies from the University of Rochester. He has taught at several universities and he contributed to significant developments at the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa. His research interests include the history and theory of photography, museum theory and exhibition practice, and aesthetic theory. Randy held the History of Photography research fellowship at the National Gallery of Canada, and he has published research and exhibition essays on historical and contemporary photography, along with other topics. An article on Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin appears in the special issue of the Canadian Art Review (RACAR) dedicated to War and Photography (Fall 2014).

Interrogations runs November 27 through December 20 at Circuit Gallery @ Prefix ICA, with an opening reception on Thursday, November 27, from 6 – 9 PM.


Donald Weber

November 27 – December 20, 2014

Reception: Thursday, November 27, 6-9 p.m.

Circuit Gallery @ Prefix ICA
401 Richmond Street West, Suite 124
Toronto, ON, M6R 2G5
[ Google Map ]

Gallery Hours:
Tuesday – Saturday, 11:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Donald Weber, Interrogation II, 2010
Donald Weber, Interrogation II, 2010
Donald Weber, Interrogations, 2010
Donald Weber, Interrogation VIII, 2010

Visit Circuit Gallery for more information and to see more images:

Circuit Gallery specializes in contemporary photography. Established in 2008 by Susana Reisman and Claire Sykes, the Toronto based commercial gallery represents both emerging and established Canadian and international artists.


Phone: 647-477-2487


Sara Matthews essay

Catalogue essay

You Can’t Talk about the War without Talking about the Weather

by Sara Matthews

…the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried 1

Until I read Tim O’Brien’s fictional account of the violences, reveries, regrets and memories of a company of American soldiers in Vietnam, I did not understand what it meant to tell a story about war. And yet what I read and re-read between those pages was not, in fact, a story about war but about the impossibility of telling a story about war even as the story presses up to be told. Stories, he suggests, console us from the fractures of memory. Against the fallibilities of being human, stories somehow persist. It might seem a strange departure to begin an essay about visual imagery with ruminations on imaginative literature, but the narrative force of the photographic work that we encounter in Embedded makes this an easy parallel.

With their respective projects, War Sand and Inshallah, Donald Weber and Dima Gavrysh carried with them their cameras and their visions and their lingering childhood insistences to two very different geographic locations – the beaches of Normandy and the plateaus of south western Afghanistan – both places deeply embedded in stories of war. While there can never be one true story of their experiences there, Weber and Gavrysh weave the sensory together with the mythic to provide a series of visual narratives that narrow the distance between the space of the gallery and the geography of war. Their photographs do not document but instead reflect on the imaginative possibilities of knowing by offering a series of visual hints: the way that light throws itself against the clouds along a rainy shore (Omaha Beach, Sector Charlie. October 4, 2013, 6:38pm. 17°C, 88% RELH, Wind, WSW, 8 Knots, VIS: poor, Thunderstorm) or the abstract contours of glass spidered by impact (Clark). Within each quiet visual moment lies a memory or perhaps a prediction about the ferocity of life and death in war that is gestured to again in the careful titling of the work. The strong aesthetic urge of the images along with the narrative suggestion of the text takes the viewer from emotion to thought and back again. “What stories can do”, writes O’Brien, “is make things present” (172). They do this by rendering the feeling of an imaginative scene. What the photographs in Embedded do is to bring this dreaming to life, not as a literal representation, but rather as a way to make present one’s own story of what war is, or might be, or might never have been.

Curator Claire Sykes selection of the title Embedded as an elemental aspect of each artist’s work is an apt point of departure for exploring this narrative impulse. A common association with the term might be the practice of matching journalists to military units for the purposes of armed conflict reporting. It was under these kinds of conditions that Dima Gavrysh was able to capture his striking images in Afghanistan. But there are other interpretations of the word that bring us to a closer understanding of what is at stake in crafting a visual relation to war. How does one come to notice, for instance, one’s deeply embedded ways of thinking about or seeing war? Can the activity of public looking help exceed these habitual frames? Furthermore, what gets left out of or lingers just beyond the frame, not only in terms of the photographic frame but also the frames of memory, experience and power within which it becomes possible to see or to not see? Weber and Gavrysh come at these questions from different vantage points with regard to their images as well as the methods they chose to produce them. Indeed, the practice of what is broadly labeled “documentary photography” is itself embedded within particular art historical and media discourses that encompass everything from the photographer’s aesthetic training to the ways in which images are taken up, circulated and discussed.

As a move against these pressures, or perhaps to find movement within them, Weber and Gavrysh adapted imaging technologies – Gavrysh’s use of a cell phone camera and Weber’s turn to microscopic photography – that stirred new connections within their imaginative worlds. In my conversations with the artists I was interested to learn how these process-based explorations lent an intuitive turn to their work, which then brought about new insights and modes of narrative encounter. The ensuing images eavesdrop on those interior conversations, inviting the viewer to think and to see alongside them. With War Sand and Inshallah, we encounter elements that, on the surface of things, we might not have seen before. In Weber’s Juno Beach, Sample #073 (Shrapnel Fragment), Sector Nan Green, for instance, we see the fantastical contours and vibrant hues of shrapnel transformed by the tumble of silica and seawater, embedded on a sandy shore. In Gavrysh’s David, the prone posture of a sleeping soldier discloses a dream-world vulnerability, a suggestive counterpoint to the mythic narrative of the soldier’s impenetrability.

Another of Gavrysh’s images, Concussion Dust, embeds the viewer in the action of a scene that would be ordinary only to those on the hot edge of combat: one can almost feel and taste the dirt and grit in one’s eyes and mouth, a palpable sensation that brings embodiment and emotion to the piece. And yet the grainy, black and white, square-trimmed photograph is the opposite of journalistic realism. Along these same lines, one of the companion pieces to Inshallah, entitled Salerno (not mounted in this show), exemplifies the artist’s use of metaphor to express the elemental, methodical and unrelenting aspects of conflict. Taken while Gavrysh was stationed at Forward Operating Base Salerno in Afghanistan, the five-minute video captures the steady splatter of rain against a concrete blast wall built to protect soldiers from enemy fire. In contrast to the permanent scars left by shrapnel, water droplets glance against the porous cement surface only to vaporize. When installed in a darkened gallery setting, the projection collapses the viewer’s perception of time and space, a fitting trope to describe the dynamics of trauma that characterize the many decades of conflict in this region.

By posing questions about how war and conflict can be visually represented, the artworks in War Sand and in Inshallah turn the viewer back upon their own archive of deeply embedded experience to inquire how one’s internal conflicts shape what becomes possible to see. Just as memories are an aspect of unconscious life, so too are one’s ways of knowing oneself in relation to one’s social and political worlds. The stories that we craft in order to apprehend such worlds carry the traces of childhood imprints, fantasies and wishes. “Stories”, writes O’Brien, “are for joining the past to the future” (172). As such, stories must reach towards a future that is impossibly unknown even as their telling may be all we have to go on, especially in the face of social devastation, loss and suffering. The urge to narrate a present that connects to the past, then, is part of a strategy of how we come to understand ourselves as fully human, even as war threatens that sense of humanity.

In the course of our conversations regarding their respective work, Weber and Gavrysh each shared accounts in which they called upon childhood motifs to make sense of their current projects. Speaking with Gavrysh via Skype to Kiev, the city in which he grew up, Gavrysh talks about his childhood fascination with the military, shaped in part by stories he had heard from family friends who, in the context of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, had been drafted for combat. Gavrysh describes the impulse behind Inshallah, a project that explores his intimate connection to both the Soviet and the American wars in Afghanistan, as drawing “on my childhood fantasies that romanticize the military and intertwine with my past and present personal conflicts”. Similarly, in my exchange with Weber, I discover that one of the inspirations for War Sand was a recollection of a story he had encountered twenty or thirty years earlier. The story involves British commandos – frogmen – in the Second World War whose task was to swim out the beaches of Normandy and retrieve soil samples for testing in support of the Allied invasion (see historical image). Fast forward to the present where Weber does his own sampling of the sand, returning the products of his photographic explorations to the viewer who then adds another layer to the narrative. “This”, he tells me, “is what happens with history. Things build upon it and our perspective changes”.

One last story: this one is called, “You Can’t Talk About the War Without Talking about the Weather”. It’s not my story but rather one that I heard from Weber, who recounts to me this amazing connection between the weather and the D-Day landing. It almost didn’t happen, he relates, as it was all very dependent on tides and weather. If the tides or weather weren’t right they would not be able to go, as was the case for the originally planned date of the invasion, which then of course had to be changed in favour of the date we all know about – June 6, 1944. And that is history. But still the perspective changes, as he shows us with Sword Beach, Sector Queen. May 17, 2013, 6:16pm. 10°C, 87% RELH, Wind, NE, 8 Knots. VIS: Fair, Overcast Clouds, Rain. These beaches, once the sites of death and mayhem but also the promise of hope from peril, are now the sites of summer homes and windsurfing, as well as our efforts to remember. “A true war story”, writes O’Brien,

…is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude, whatsoever. There is no virtue … and in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow.1

1. Tim O’Brien. 1990. The Things They Carried. Boston, New York: Mariner Books.

Sara Matthews, April 2014
©Sara Matthews. All Rights Reserved.


Sara Matthews is Assistant Professor of Culture and Conflict in the Department of Global Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her interdisciplinary work brings aesthetic and cultural theory to the study of violence and the dynamics of social conflict. Her current research considers how contemporary Canadian War Artists are responding to Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. In addition to her academic work, Sara curates aesthetic projects that archive visual encounters with legacies of war and social trauma. Her critical writing has appeared in articles for PUBLIC, FUSE Magazine, as a blog for Gallery TPW R&D, and in exhibition essays for the Art Gallery of Bishops University and YYZ.




Donald Weber – 2014 Scotiabank Photography Award Finalist

Donald Weber 2014 Scotiabank Photography Award Finalist
Donald Weber 2014 Scotiabank Photography Award Finalist

Donald Weber was a finalist for the 2014 Scotiabank Photography Award. A huge honour and well deserved recognition. Congratulations Don!

Watch the video of Donald talking about his work.

Canadian Art Critic and Writer Sarah Milroy nominated Donald for the Award.

Donald Weber
Nominator’s Statement

Documentary photography is a calling that entails all the aesthetic discrimination, technical expertise, and sophisticated reading of the world demanded of artists working in the fine art tradition. Added to this, however, is the added pressure of making pictures out in the world, often under conditions of threat. It’s a dance with fate: the operations of chance, of light judged on the fly, the threat of equipment failure, the chance nature of human encounter and connection, the sometimes steep requirements for personal courage, and the need for instinct that can never be quantified or explained — all must be summoned in the moment.

Donald Weber, now 40, is one of Canada’s most compelling practitioners in the field of documentary photography, a tradition too seldom honored in Canadian art. His insightful and piercing images of life in Russia and Eastern Europe have lifted the veil on a part of the world little known and understood in the west, his images powerfully bearing forth the vitality, violence and grim subsistence of a people burdened by the weight of a traumatic history, and stranded in a purgatorial present. Whether photographing the snow swept aftermath of Stalin’s purges, or the now-stilled landscapes of the western Ukraine and Siberia that were once the site of political atrocities, Weber captures the eeriness of a present haunted by the past. As we see in the faces of his urban denizens, gang members, and marauding police, the use of force has become a way of life, grimly accepted by its victims and exalted by its perpetrators.

In a similar vein, Weber has explored the vestigial curse of environmental disaster. In the long shadow of Chernobyl, he pursued connection with the human beings left in the wake of the 1986 explosion, either as survivors of the medical afflictions caused by radiation, or as scavengers reduced to rubbish picking in closed contamination areas. (More recently, he has documented the aftermath of the Fukushima explosion.) The sense prevails of people as subject to historical forces beyond their control, whether he is photographing a child living in the Chernobyl exclusion zone or an Inuk negotiating his abrupt cultural transition into the digital 21st century. Through Weber’s lens, poverty, the forces of oppression and the machinations of power are seen to grind the human subject in their gears.

In this regard, his most recent series of photographs, titled War Sand, serves as a solemn coda. The sands of the Normandy beaches are said to be eight percent shrapnel, metal exploded in combat and then corroded by time and the constant ministrations of the ocean tides. Added to this is its grim corollary: a portion of human remains, bone that has been crushed and crumbled to near powder-like consistency. Through the use of microscopic photography and with a kind of forensic inquisitiveness and existential wondering, Weber brings us close to these fragments, offering us, too, the longer view: the eerie hush of the beachhead and the expressionless features of the sea and sky, edged in grasses. The series invites a contemplation of the endless quiet that lies beyond the flare of bold historical events, offering a cautionary tale of the hubris of humankind.

– Sarah Milroy