Laying Down the Law
Convictions in Ukraine are often based on confessions. A photographer captures the moment of truth.
It took the photographer Donald Weber more than five years to make his way inside a Ukrainian police interrogation room. In 2006, he was on an assignment with police officers in Chernobyl when they chanced upon two men stealing metal scraps. Weber tagged along as the officers arrested the men, then watched from across the room as the officers brutally pressed them to confess.
Since his first visit to Russia a decade earlier, Weber had been fascinated by how individuals respond to absolute authority. The experience of watching the thieves’ interrogation gave him the idea for a project: to photograph police interrogations in the former Soviet republic, where rights groups say the vast majority of convictions are based on confessions.
Weber had a trusted source in the police department of a Ukrainian city, and began pressing for access. At first, the officer rebuffed him. But after years of cajoling, Weber was finally allowed inside earlier this year.
For months, Weber showed up every morning at police headquarters, where he sat on a wooden bench in a drab hallway, waiting to ask the suspects if they’d let him witness their interrogations. When they agreed, he sat and watched from his chair in a small room as a damaged light fixture cast spider-web patterns on the wall.
A range of people were brought in—alleged prostitutes, drug dealers, rapists, and thieves—some cool and collected veterans, others cowering in fear. Weber raised his camera when he sensed that the moment he was there to capture was imminent—when the suspects realized they would admit they were guilty, whether they actually were or not. Every one of them eventually did.
Some, though, took time to break. One man kept denying his guilt and, in a slight to the officer interrogating him, broke into Fenya, a cant language spoken by Ukrainian thieves. “The officer was losing his grip on who had authority, ” remembers Weber, who snapped a photo as the officer pressed his gun to the suspect’s head.
The moment pictured on the previous spread lasted just seconds. But when the gun returned to the officer’s holster, everything about the interrogation had changed. The suspect began to speak with respect, and soon he confessed.
Weber’s Book, Interrogations, will be published this fall.