Donald Weber spent six years living and working in the Russian Republic and Ukraine to create an incredible body of work documenting civilians being questioned, sometimes at gunpoint, by the police. 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. Below is an interview between reporter Katy McCarthy and Weber. You can see more photos from the series on JJIE’s arts and culture blog Bokeh here.
JJIE: Describe how the furniture in the room sets the tone and mood — how does it create a separation of power between interrogator and the one being questioned?
Donald Weber: 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? It’s about destabilizing and setting the tone for who is in charge.
JJIE: Describe the process of gaining access to these interrogations—Did you have to bribe your way in? Did you have government clearance? Does your gaining access describe a corrupt police state? What are your thoughts on this?
D.W: It’s unofficial. Part of the bargain was that I would never say where in Ukraine or with whom. I had known the police officer for years and slowly we each gained a mutual trust. In Russia and Ukraine it’s also about learning the cultural cues and connections that are inherently Russian. To ingratiate yourself into Russian society, vodka is a key ingredient. So, I drank a lot of vodka. Another tactic with the vodka, is that Russia is essentially a macho society, they constantly accused me of being weak as I am American. I cannot drink. So, to prove my ‘manhood’ and thus their faith in me, I always tried to drink at least one more shot than the police.
JJIE: When I look at the photos they are largely decontextualized by the nature of the blank room, how do they speak to broader issues in the Russian republic and Ukraine?
D.W: I think they speak beyond the broader issues not just in Russia and Ukraine but globally. It’s about the way state power plays out across these countries but also to show the brutality and helplessness that undergirds all society. I am interested in the many-meaning context of the verb “to interrogate” — at first glance, it is a neutral verb stripped of its violent, forceful resonance. [The Interrogation book] uses this resonance to examine our own connection to authoritarianism and power.
JJIE: In the photo of the boy with the cyrillic writing on his forehead you write that they “threatened to send the boy into adult prison if he didn’t straighten out. He has not committed a crime since.” In the United States we have scared straight programs, but extensive research has shown they have little to no success in improving outcomes. Do you think this tactic works in Ukraine/Russia? What does this reveal about the politics of power?
D.W: He says it worked, but I wonder what compromise did they have to make in order to make him “go straight”? What other fissure happened in his life? Perhaps trust in authority or something has been broken, I don’t know, but I don’t necessarily believe it works. But then I think this is how not just state power but power dynamics work the world over, in general. French philosopher Louis Althusser famously placed the moment we recognize our subservience to the authority of a state in a street scene where one is confronted by a police officer. The officer, writes Althusser, shouts: “‘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.”
JJIE: Did the people being interrogated ever try to speak to you? Question your presence in the room? Harass you?
D.W: No, but I always had to ask them beforehand. I think they had other things on their mind, and perhaps they felt my presence was a virtue, hard to say, and again, this is where the notion of “interrogation” comes from in the book as well. It’s not just a side play about two sides, but their is a third character involved in this — me. And I will always be involved in a situation, so no matter what I do or how I approach a scene, as photographers you’re just as much a part of the process as the subjects are. By our very nature, our very presence, we are “interrogating” a scene and letting it unfold through our conscious and sub-conscious levels.
JJIE: What do you think the interrogators and the government see as the goal of their efforts — ability to govern by fear? To keep people impoverished? To stop crime?
D.W: To keep their jobs! I think it’s that simple. In this case, Ukraine is fairly impoverished, to have work and good work (albeit the police don’t make much money but they can feed their family) is vital. The police in this part of the world (and I believe in America too, albeit in a different manner) have quotas to fill. If they do not meet their quotas, they will not have a job. In order to survive, they must make arrests.
JJIE: How do the interrogators view themselves and their jobs?
D.W: They like to think that they do their jobs well. In fact, one of the policemen I work with was very successful very quickly. Not because of bribes and such, but because he actually did the job he was trained to do. A big part of the project was difficult at first as I was using my Western policing methods to judge their frankly repulsive manner and that was a difficult process to reconcile. But then a friend said to me: you cannot judge by the way your police would behave, but how these police behave. They were trained in these methods, so they do the job they were trained to do.
JJIE: It seems like so many of the subjects are suspected of crimes of poverty—theft, prostitution, etc. Why are they being brought in for questioning for such low level crimes?
D.W: Again – a quota. You need to have crime to solve crime.
JJIE: I am struck by the images of the women, most of who are brought in for prostitution. Why is prostitution criminalized? Are they sent to jail? Can you describe your feelings on this?
D.W: Prostitution is criminalized, but they rarely go to prison. The big plan of the police is not necessarily to commit those accused of crimes to jail, but rather to seek information. I really believe it all goes back to the idea of a quota — the police are obliged to solve crime, without crime, they cannot solve any and thus they’re out of work! Once they bring those in for questioning, they use the threat of jail time in exchange for information. You could say it’s a grand bargain, in fact more like blackmail — bring me what I need/want, and you’ll stay out of jail. I always saw the faces of the accused ponder their deal — and what to do? As for prostitution, it seems like sex workers are like the cabbies of the underworld — they know everybody and everything. Even in full-fledged, mature democracies, one still feels a kind of nakedness when in the crosshairs of the law, a vulnerability that can only be mitigated after the fact by norms of due process and habeas corpus.
JJIE: When the police brought out a gun—did you feel like you were keeping the suspect safe by creating evidence? Did you feel that they would actually use it? How did it change the mood of the room?
D.W: I found that the police and the accused really honestly dissolved from me and my presence. I was nothing to them. I am sure subconsciously they thought here is a third party, what is he doing, he will protect me, but I also believe that people fade into their own reality regardless of the situation and then secure themselves against that. The gun was such an impulsive move on the policeman’s part, it had nothing to do with anything other than frustration and anger at the process of the interrogation. As I say in the next paragraph below, there is a role that both the criminals and the police have to play. If they all play it according to the plan, things generally play out well. If not, then things end up like this. And the idea that the accused criminal would ever lodge a complaint about a police officer in Ukraine or Russia is laughable — it would probably result in a more serious crime for the criminal. I knew they would never use the gun, the policeman couldn’t afford bullets (they have to buy their own). And as for the mood, it changed, and in the way the policeman wanted. The idea was that the criminal was speaking in a very disrespectful dialect, what the zeks (slang word, from ‘zaklyuchenniy’ which means contained, confined, enclosed) call ‘Fenya,’ a strange, centuries old dialect spoken by the underworld. It’s also highly disrespectful to the police and at this point in the interrogation frustration and impulse won the day.
JJIE: When someone is made an informant do they face retribution from other criminals? Do they sign something? Is it informal? How long are they expected to inform?
D.W: Informal, and it’s up to the discretion of the officer. I think a whole dissertation could be made on the complex relationships between criminals, informers, police and the others that all mix together in the giant stew of criminality. One other thing to consider, certainly in Russia and Ukraine, is that the thief — zek has a very honorable and distinguished role in Slavic society. For centuries, the zeks have basically run the underclass, and have always been in secret collaboration with their guards, the police. In Soviet times during the Gulag era, the zeks had privileges that the politicals and others never had. They were often used in the guarding and beating of the other prisoners, allowed to roam free amongst the prison grounds and enforce their rule. So, even today, you can see the hierarchy at play in current society. It’s not a mistake that many of those running top businesses, politics and other state ventures were once some kind of thief in their past.