Donald Weber is one of our favorite photographers. In addition to traveling the world and shooting for every publication that matters and winning a Guggenheim Fellowship and Lange-Taylor documentary prize, he recently put out an amazing photo book, Interrogations (Schilt Publishing, 2011), that documents the psychologically humiliating interrogations of Ukraine's petty criminals. The crimes of the accused are listed underneath their photos. If you can look at this kind of raw human shame and perverse humiliation without cringing, you're probably a corrections officer or in the CIA.
In regards to the photos, Donald said, “Without confessions, courts everywhere would grind to a halt in an instant; more than 90 percent of all charges in the Russian and Ukrainian judicial systems end in guilty pleas, and only experienced criminals and highly educated defendants stand a chance. This is what the cops are doing behind their closed doors—the feudal system’s trial by ordeal is still much with us.”
Donald will be having an opening reception for Interrogations tonight at the Foley gallery in New York City, and the photos will be remain on display through the end of May. In anticipation of his big fancy opening, we sat down to talk to him about spending nearly a year hanging out in dirty Ukrainian police stations, watching people get beat up, Sharpied, and pistol-whipped.
VICE: These were all from Ukraine, right?
Donald Weber: Yeah, exactly. It was in 2010 and 2011. I made two separate trips for three or four months each in the winter time.
How did you even know or stumble upon this? Through the police?
My very first trip was in 2005. I met the policeman who ended up becoming my guide into the criminal world. Over the next five years, I got to know him more and more and began to understand the idea of criminality and how it works. That's basically how I came up with the idea of doing an interrogation. It took me two or three years when I had the idea and then another two years to convince him to let me photograph.
How did you meet him in Ukraine?
It was my very first trip to the Ukraine. I didn't have much to do and my friend said, "I know a policeman. Why don't you go meet him?" That night he was going on a raid, and he asked me to come along to see what it was like. From there, I always maintained contact with him. Every time I'd go to the Ukraine, I would see him and go out. For one of my very first projects, he was a key component for introducing me to certain types of people.
What kind of people?
Kind of gangster dudes. Just low-level Mafia guys. Nothing serious.
What did you think of his character?
He is an incredibly conflicted character, I think. In one aspect, I'd hear him talking to criminals in Fenya—the language that criminals speak—and then he would call either his mom, wife, or his daughter and he'd be very goody-goody. He'd say, "Oh hi, Mommy! I love you and miss you so much!" There were these dual characters about him.
When did you first ask him about shooting the interrogation? Why would think to do that? Why would you think that would be any different than an interrogation in an American jail?
As I was developing my ideas in Russia and Ukraine, he was also blossoming as an officer. He was going up the ranks as I was figuring it out. The work that I wanted to do got a lot more in depth, so I would push it with him every trip. I would tell him, "Last time you showed me this. Now, let's go here. I want to see this." He was always open and honest. He would set his limits and if I obeyed, he'd have this door open for me. On one of my very first trips, a guy told about an interrogation that he had undergone. He was wrongfully accused of a brutal rape and murder. He told me what happened to him by the cops. I thought I would like to see this interrogation.
He was interrogated by this guy?
No, somebody else. Some other Russian cops about 15 years ago. I just remember this story was quite harrowing. I wasn't really sure how this idea of justice and such operates in that part of the world, but I got a very clear notion of an understanding that it's between the underclass and its bosses. I wanted to investigate that relationship.
It's interesting that you heard about the interrogation from one guy and wound up in this guy in Ukraine. What are the standards and practices in that part of the world, if you could summarize.
That was kind of the interesting thing. When he finally let me into an actual interrogation, I was horrified. I didn't really know what to do. This guy and his partner were incredibly brutal in terms of manipulating and understanding the human psychology. They could break someone in minutes just using words. Now, there was some physical violence, but generally it was more the psychological violence.
A lot of people are pretty petty criminals, right?
Yeah. I think the most major were accused rapists, but generally they are all mid-level thieves, drug dealers, prostitutes, and pimps.
You didn't see them interrogate a suspected murderer? It seemed like most of it was mid-level stuff, but is that just because of the lack of murders in the area? Would they not let you in for those? I'm just wondering how intense it could get.
The intensity is not based on the crime. It's based on the behavior of the accused. The guy with the gun to his head was a car thief. The reason why he got a gun to pulled to his head was just because he was disrespectful and he wasn't following the protocol of criminal-cop behavior. It's a really interesting system that's centuries old. The criminal hierarchy goes back a few hundred years in Slavic Europe and the cops are very much a part of that. They know where they sit. There's a way of speak, and cops have a begrudging respect to a thief. For rapists and for murderers, not so much. If you're a thief, regardless of what kind of thief you are, and you engage in the edict, you'll be fine. They'll question you and tell you what you need to do instead of sending you to prison. Basically, they'll give you a warning and let you go. For me, it all came down to the understanding and the relationship between someone who has something and someone who doesn't have anything.
Is that tied into communist values?
I think it goes beyond that. When I first started the work, that's what I wanted to do. I was thinking about Communism twenty years later. But what I realized is that Russian Ukraine is incredibly fertile soil. Not just for potatoes and wheat, but it's also fertile soil for domination. This idea of discipline. Discipline is innate to their character. It's basically what's happening now, they just keep changing their suits every 75 years. Now they have tailored suits where as before they had shitty Polish-made suits.
What was the room? Is it in a police station?
I've only been to Russia once, but to me it screamed Russia with bright pink wallpaper in an interrogation room. What was the room like? You don't really get to see much of it except for the perspective of which you photographed the people in the chair.
That's pretty much what you get. That was one of the police officer's offices. Other than that table, there was one other desk, which you don't see. That was basically the criminal table. There was usually one or two chairs, but sometimes there were no chairs. The chair became highly important in the interrogation. The cop in the beginning would move the chair or maybe put a bag on the chair and he'd ask the criminal to take a seat. The criminal would pick the bag up and put it on the ground and cop would say that he never told him to move the bag. It was this whole game. These guys were actually quite sophisticated. They had very sophisticated sensibility and instincts of how a character works and how space works.
There's obviously the photo with the gun to the guy’s head. Did that happen only happen once?
Uh, no. Sometimes they had one chairs, sometimes two chairs, and sometimes no chairs. Each time, the cop would set the room and see how the convict would react.
What other acts of violence did you see that were physical?
Lots of punching and hitting. Humiliation was really what it was about. It was about weakness. Like the one with the boy with the writing on his forehead, that was actually quite a long, brutal session. I remember him saying, "I'm going to fuck you in the ass." He took a billy club and was using it like a dick on his face.
Did you get a sense that this was isolated in terms of how they were interrogating?
No. That was an interesting turning point for me was when I figured it out. At first I thought, this was just particular to these two guys. I talked to my friend about it and I was telling him they were just bullies basically. He told me that they were really good cops. My associate there rose really quickly up the ranks. He started off as a junior officer, and within five years he was a major. He was a good cop, I hate to say, and he did his job well. Partly, he explained to me that this is his training. They are actually doing what they are taught. Techniques of physical abuse are actually taught in cop school.
So I kind of realized that I couldn't bring my American values of justice there because that's not the way they do it—this is the way they do it. I'm not there to judge it. But then another sort of major turning point is that in Canada there was this famous case about two years ago of an Air Force colonel, the prime minister's personal pilot, who was a serial rapist who murdered women. He would photograph them. He was caught, and they showed on television his interrogation because the news media were saying that this was like a classic interrogation—this is a perfect interrogation. And the techniques that these Canadian cops were using were exactly the same as the Ukrainian cops. Like the positioning of the chair, how they make the guy always sit, the cop is always standing. Of course there's no physical abuse, but the mental manipulation that these Canadian cops were imposing on the rapist were amazing. Because the rapist comes in as not a suspect, and within two hours he's confessed his crime. I just saw the parallels, like, "Shit, it has nothing to do with a Ukrainian cop or a Russian or an American cop, it has everything to do with—you know, it's a power relationship."
I'm sure you've been asked this—Do you think that any of these confessions were coerced?
I think a lot of the information… Well, basically what the cops are looking for, they're not looking to convict a crime, but they're looking for information. So there's kind of a steady game played between the cops and the convict. If the convict can release some information that the police are happy with, then we can go. And if the policeman is seen as getting information, then his job is secure from his higher-ups.
There's a quota of how many people they get to sign a confession?
Confessions, how many criminals they've arrested, how many successful prosecutions… it's all different.
But say they let someone go who's like a petty thief but they get information, how do they justify that to their bosses?
Informants, basically, is what they're looking for.
OK, I get it. Let me ask you one more. You don't reveal the name of the town at any time, obviously that would compromise them…
What was the area like in terms of poverty and crime?
It was a medium-sized town, city. Industrial… Pretty typical for Russia/Ukraine. It was Russian-speaking in Ukraine. I would say it's like an industrial blue-collar city.
OK. And the crime rate was pretty was pretty standard for that kind of city?
Maybe even a little bit higher. I think all crime rates in that part of the world are pretty high.