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Any Answers: Donald Weber

Donald Weber portrait © Daniël Siegersma

Donald Weber originally trained as an architect and worked with Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam. He's now produced four photobooks, including the forthcoming War Sand

A high-school teacher told me I sucked at photography. I made cheap rip-offs of Penn’s cigarette-butt photos. But picking the cigarettes up with my fingers, placing them, shooting them, watching as they came out of the developer – that was joyful! Terrible, yet awesomely fun.

Aren’t we all some kind of awful in our youth? But what we do have in youth, and what I miss today as I enter middle age, is just a total sense of joy.

It wasn’t architecture per se that fascinated me, it was Rem Koolhaas. It was his wild, crazy, fantastical buildings, drawings, sketches and models. It just seemed so alive, so otherworldly, smart and dangerous. I am drawn to danger in many forms.

I learnt from Rem that everything needs consideration and thought. Thoughtfulness can be intellectual rigour, but it can also present itself through tactile or lived experience. It’s about taking the time and considering the profound questions that surround you.

I dreamt of crossing the Sahara by motorcycle. Or resurrecting my long-dormant desire to be a photographer. Then I got hit by a car. Sliding across the pavement and seeing my bike crumpled in a smoking heap, one dream was crushed, while the other started that day.

With photography, I can get dirty. I can crawl around, tear my pants, and nobody cares. I can go into the world, participate in life. Curiosity is aptly rewarded.

Trust yourself to do right. That simple advice was given to me by Erin Elder, former photo editor of Canada’s Globe And Mail, and it always resonates. With trust, you allow yourself to open up and view the world as you see it, not set an agenda for others.

My greatest strength as a photographer is certainly not my images. It’s the capacity to exist between barely controlled chaos and the precision to be decisive – another skill picked up from Rem. It allows me freedom to experiment and not get caught up in photographic decorum.

My biggest failing is my nearly paralysing insecurity. I love to recede into the darkness and drift away from all forms of confrontation. Yet I have made a career of it.

Photography is not in the mechanical aspects but in the thoughtfulness of seeing. Interpreting the world, abetting your curiosity to get the better of you. Releasing the Kraken.

I love Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions. When I teach, I try to impede my students. It forces them to get smart, dig deep and discover what they’re really trying to communicate.

Students often treat their images as sacred. Holy objects they are completely in control of. This makes them rigid and conservative and anxious about collaboration.

Photography education excels in the myth of ‘heroic artist’ when, in fact, the bulk of a photographer’s career will be spent maximising collaborations. Let go, damn it!

I love writing grant proposals. It gives clarity to my ideas. It’s an excuse to not be so lazy.

I’ve just about had enough of photojournalism. What I find most disheartening is the staunch anti-intellectualism; an almost complete lack of self-awareness, with severe consequences in today’s world of “alternative facts”. We don’t trust what we see. Why is that?

Interrogations wasn’t just named after the situations I was photographing. I was interrogating myself, the nature of documentary, the intrusion into life, my responsibilities.

Today we can be our own masters. We can move seamlessly from concept to making to novel forms of distribution. There’s no need to exist within the closed sphere of mainstream media. The freedom of a humanist renaissance awaits the independent photographer.

What has photography taught me about reality? Actually, it’s the other way round – reality has taught me that there is nothing real in photography. It’s all just a completely subjective experience, which is quite liberating when you realise it.

donaldweber.com This article was first published in the August issue of BJP, www.thebjpshop.com