After almost a decade spent in the Ukraine, Donald Weber tells us the story behind this photo of one of the country’s ballerinas
Emerging from the “rabbit hole” that was close to a decade spent in post-Soviet Ukraine and Russia, photographer Donald Weber’s stint there gave us a rare glimpse into the lives of his downtrodden subjects. Published in 2011, his resulting book Interrogations explored the power relations at play in the region by taking us inside police interrogation rooms. Capturing the policemen, working girls, thugs and hustlers in this powerful piece of work, the images are ripe with fear and despair, telling an emotional story in an ‘abstractly psychological way’.
A VII Photo Agency member since 2013, Weber is now working on his upcoming book, War Sand. Rather than depicting the effects of world power through human subjects, his current project examines this through the Normandy beachscape, the scene of wartime sacrifice in 1944. The series revolves around documenting the still-present war materials, like shrapnel and bullets, mixed in with the sand.
Evoking his buried memories about the time he spent in the “dark, gloomy and cold” Ukraine, Weber talks about Masha, his “Ukrainian conscience”, a ballerina he photographed towards the end of his last trip in the region. Admitting that it took “at least a year” to face the pictures taken over the period, Weber is now ready to confront his demons, noting that he is considering returning to the Ukraine for further work in the future.
“I remember it because it was photographed on one of my last times in the Ukraine. I never really felt comfortable in the end, leaving the way I did, but I knew I had to. I went there in 2004 and almost ten years later I emerged from it – like one of those Rip Van Winkle things, where you think you’re taking a nap but in reality you disappear for a while. I think I’d finally woken up that morning and realised it was just too much, it’s time to go.
Her name was Masha, she was a ballerina. There was something quixotic about her, I liked her serenity. I think at that time I was also looking for solitude or serenity and I had subconsciously tapped into that with her. Masha is like my Ukrainian conscience looking at me, asking ‘what happened?’, ‘should you be going?’ and ‘are you making the right decision?’. There’s almost something critical in the way that she’s gazing at me.
It was just one of those fleeting moments when you recognise somebody, you see somebody and just take a picture. I was at a ballet school, with some friends and I saw her. She was just on her way out and we chatted for a little while and I said ‘I want to take your picture’ and she said ‘Oh okay’. She stopped and looked at me and I liked the look she gave me. I just took a couple of frames and that was it.
“I think I’d finally woken up that morning and realised it was just too much, it’s time to go” – Donald Weber
It was very instinctual. There was something that she was already exuding from her eyes, her face and her physicality, so I didn’t have to do much at all. I know if I had tried to work with her more or pose her more or spend more time with her, that the picture wouldn't have been as good as the first or second frame.
The other reason I love this photo is there’s nothing decadent in terms of photography – it's very straightforward. The richness is coming from the subject, it's not coming from the photographer. All I had to do was recognise, with my own instinct, that she was an interesting person and she had some kind of insight to offer via the camera. I just had to be there and allow it to happen.
The pictures I like best are the ones where you can see the essence somebody has immediately. I like subtle gestures, I like things that are very calm and simple and make the viewer ‘the reader’ of the image. The contents, the meaning of the image can provide them with a few different ideas of how to process the imagery, but I generally like to keep it almost blank, where it's up to you to determine the fate of those pictures.
It took me a long time, probably at least a year, before I went back and looked at that work. Anything from the Ukraine – I didn’t want to have anything to do with it – I wanted to bury it away under the dirt, under the ground and let it rot to some degree. Then maybe one day, when I can look back from a more sane position, I can reengage with it.
Now I’ve gone beyond the ability to distance myself from it, detach myself from all of the different scenes, situations and places that I’d been to. I left just before all the events kicked off in 2013, and from speaking with friends in Kiev and other places, it's a very different place. I would like to see how it's transformed, I would like to see my friends, I would like to see the cities and the villages and how the events of the last few years transformed their outlook and perspectives. I guess there's a bit of nostalgia there – nostalgic sympathy. I’m a sentimental kind of person anyway.”