Text by Katy McCarthy | Photos by Donald Weber
I have made the most miserable flipbook.
Using the arrow keys on my computer, I am clicking through three images of a young woman being interrogated. In the first image, she holds her hands near her face protectively, but loosely. She has make-up smears under her tired eyes. Click. In the second, her brown bangs hang in her face as if something or someone had roughly tousled her hair; her arm definitively wrapped around herself. Her aggressor is visible now, a man’s mouth and nose peering into the top right corner. His mouth is open, you can almost hear him yelling. Click. In the third frame, he holds a gun to her head.
This is Diana, a sex worker who went missing while on parole.
While the three images may collectively only take up a megabyte on my computer, they reveal a massive amount of information on life in a police state, crime and punishment and the nature of power the world over.
So many of these scared faces are adolescent. Tired-looking 20-somethings and younger accused of stealing and prostitution. Crimes of desperation.
One young face is permanently imprinted behind my eyes. A sobbing teenager with Cyrillic scrawled on his forehead. He is almost 16, his name is Vasily. He is being humiliated by the police as a means of intimidating him out of committing more crime. Weber tells me that the local detective is taking this initiative out of some sense of “paternal devotion.”
That may be, but Vasily looks like what he really needs is a hug, a place to warm his hands, a real parent.
What does his forehead say? Cretin, imbecile, moron.
These brutal, surreal scenes belong to a body of work by photographer Donald Weber who spent almost six years living and working in the Russian Republic and Ukraine to create the project, aptly and simply titled “Interrogations.” The work was published as a book in 2011 and included in the Open Society Foundation’s 2013 Moving Walls exhibition.
Gaining access to these spaces was downright labyrinthine; befriended policemen, months of waiting, and endless ingratiating (a key ingredient of which is copious drinking. “So,” Weber said, “I drank a lot of vodka.”). As he told Pete Brook of Prison Photography a few years back, “I sat almost every day for four months on a bench in a hallway of the police station waiting with the people who were to be interrogated. The first month not a single frame was photographed. Each day I would show up 9 a.m. and leave approximately 12 hours later.”
“Another tactic with the vodka is that Russia is essentially a macho society, they constantly accused me of being weak as I am American … So, to prove my ‘manhood’ and thus their faith in me, I always tried to drink at least one more shot than the police,” he recalled.
A wooden table. The edge of a desk. A stiff-backed chair. The furniture in these rooms sets the tone, but to what I’m not exactly sure. Bad wallpaper, the likes of which you’ve only seen in your grandparent’s bathroom, sets the backdrop for each photo. In some, beige with regular gray-brown splotches; in others, a pink-ish white-ish design the texture of particleboard. You get the feeling that the intention of the desks and the “decorating” is to decontextualize the space — not for you the viewer, of course, but for the people being brought there for questioning.
Weber found that a lot of it had to do with destabilization.
“Police are always in control of the room, and they use simple methods like furniture placement. For example, when the accused would come into the room, the police would place a chair in a simple way. One way is, he would place a bag on the chair and tell the accused to take a seat. The accused would then start to remove the bag, with the policeman telling him to stop – ‘I didn’t say you could remove that bag!’ So the accused is left standing, although he has to sit — so what does he do?”
In one photograph, it seems that a young man named Sasha was faced with this dilemma. He kneels on rust-colored carpet, gesturing with an open palm as if it’s all just a misunderstanding. I’m not the Sasha you want, I have done nothing, he seems to be saying.
And perhaps he didn’t do anything at all.
An unnamed young woman’s story reveals that there doesn’t always need to be an obvious crime committed to land you in the hot seat. In a fur coat with a shaved head, the nameless woman seems terribly confused. According to Weber, the police at first thought she was a sex worker, but quickly realized she was very high on a Russian drug similar to meth and that she could barely comprehend where she was. Weber states, “She was probably just an unlucky drug addict caught while the police were on a lunch break, trolling for some convictions.”
I feel for this girl. Her bizarre coat, her clasped hands, her pudgy face. Knowing what I know about the criminal justice system—and I don’t know anything about Ukraine’s criminal justice system– … I don’t foresee prison being helpful to her.
The fear of imprisonment looms spectrally throughout the project. What happens if you displease the interrogators — a decade in some decrepit Soviet-era prison?
One alternative is becoming an informant for the police.
As with Diana, the sex worker, the power dynamics at work here speak to those in play in the two countries where these injustices are occurring. Brutality. Authoritarianism. Ruling through fear and violence. It’s scared straight — horrid and ineffective, but without even the misplaced intention of reforming behavior to reduce crime.
Weber relayed to me an anecdote from the French philosopher Louis Althusser, which
“famously placed the moment we recognize our subservience to the authority of a state.”
A police officer, writes Althusser, shouts at someone: “‘Hey, you there!’… Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject.”
Read an interview with Donald Weber on JJIE
See more work by Donald Weber