In October the Canada Council announced that Donald Weber had won the 2009 Duke and Duchess of York prize in photography.
In the late 1990s Donald Weber worked with Rem Koolhaas' OMA and with Kongats Architects, Toronto on a project that won a Governor-General's award, but clearly photography is his medium as he has a long list of awards, citations and exhibitions. His first book, Bastard Eden, Our Chernobyl came out in 2008 and he appears to live in Moscow, Kiev and Toronto.
With a recent Guggenheim Fellowship and the Canada Council grant he is writing a book about life in Russia, described on his website as 'the curse of power and the wounds it inflicts on those who don't have it. It's the 18th Century with jets flying overhead'.
Weber's project is enormous: enormous iniquities in an enormous continent. THE LAST THING THEY SAW. Soviet Execution Sites is a suite of photographs that documents 'the conversion of the idea of public space and private refuge into a charnel house, from which no escape is possible'. From 1936 the NKVD project cleansed Georgians, Poles, Ukrainians and suspect intelligentsia deported to death camps. The photographs of the sites - bits of forest, fields, skies through winter tree branches, houses which had been no refuge, windows that witnessed these terrible acts.
BASTARD EDEN. Our Chernobyl series shows a territory - the Exclusion Zone, not abandoned but rather occupied by a society that has chosen this area because it has returned to pre-modern life, because modern life is afraid to live in the site of a nuclear accident. These are landscapes and people that look uncannily like northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, without big shiny pick-ups able to drive to a Wal-Mart on the horizon.
Weber's photographs are seductive, especially WHITE NIGHTS. Russia after the Gulag: inky, velvety interiors, snow blown landscapes, wind blown trees, a litter of leaves. What makes romance impossible are the titles and the opening texts that accompany each suite of photographs. These are startling, setting up the photos but not actually preparing one for their impact. Beauty is not innocent here. It is desperate, resigned beauty: mothers desperate, sons resigned.
His questions are simple: for Chernobyl, what is life in a post-nuclear world? In The Lost War. The Russian-Georgian Conflict in South Ossetia, something that for most of us was brief news headlines as the glamourous Beijing Olympics filled our television screens, Weber's eye is absolutely unflinching. And it wasn't a small tempest; clearly it was war, as always. It is always war.