Brothers Under the Skin

Donald WeberOne man's back is covered with a design showing onion-domed Russian Orthodox churches.
A man stands in a darkened room, shirtless, his body all muscles and ink. His left shoulder is adorned with an arc of onion domes and an icon. On his lower torso is a Russian Orthodox priest. His tattoos mark him as a former zek, or prisoner, and an "honest thief."

The man is one of the subjects of Canadian photographer Donald Weber, who has immersed himself in the world of Russian and Ukrainian ex-cons, visiting them at their homes and documenting their elaborate tattoos.

"What intrigues me about the zeks is that their life is very rich in nuance and consciously layered with meaning," Weber said in a recent telephone interview from Kiev. "Russian criminals take their tattooing very seriously, because whatever's on their body defines who they are or what they are going to be. They can never escape it.

Russian prisoners apply tattoos to each other's bodies using improvised tools and inks. The designs describe their criminal histories as well as their social and sexual status within the prison. This tradition has been practised among career criminals -- or 'honest thieves' -- at least since the 1920s.

Weber aims to produce a book about ex-prisoners, prostitutes, and the subculture to which they belong. He describes the project, titled "Zek: In the Prison of the East," as a work of art, rather than conventional photojournalism.

"I try not to say I'm a journalist at times because I'm not just factually documenting what I'm seeing [in Russia and Ukraine]. It's more about my ideas and my perception of the place," he said.

"My basic premise is that Russia is a prison society," he said. "And that is deep in its history, in its historical bones. That probably goes back to Kievan Rus."

Based in Toronto until recently, Weber has published his work in magazines including Time and Newsweek. He also takes assignments from nongovernmental organizations such as M?decins Sans Fronti?res. Since 2005, he has concentrated on documenting the lives of people dwelling on the gloomy peripheries of the former Soviet Union.

For his 2005 photo essay, "The Underclass and its Bosses: Ukraine," Weber tagged along with east Ukrainian vice cops as they busted down doors and roughed up suspects. He juxtaposed the handful of violent scenes he witnessed with shots depicting the domestic lives of criminals and drug addicts. In his 2006 series "Bastard Eden: Chernobyl at 20," he captured Ukrainians trying to scratch out a living in and around the contaminated zone.

While photographing the "Underclass" series, Weber was introduced by his fixer to a number of heavily tattooed former prisoners, an encounter that provided the starting point for his current project.

"Being in that world and meeting those people was the genesis of an idea, not specifically about cons and tattoos, but about that world and how it reflects modern-day Russia," Weber said. "In 2005, I had no idea where all this was leading, but as I get more involved with the people I've been photographing, I've come to understand [them]."

In 2007, The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation awarded Weber a substantial grant, which allowed him to relocate to Moscow and Kiev -- cities between which he now divides his time -- and develop his Russia and Ukraine focus in situ.

In the "Zek" series, Weber depicts Russian and Ukrainian former prisoners in domestic settings. His pictures of the zeks are starkly lit and often show the men appearing to emerge out of the darkness. In the backgrounds are recurring household objects: soft toys, carpets hung on walls, icons and landscape prints.

"Sometimes they're living with their families, or maybe a guy got out of prison and he's living with his brother and his wife, or with nephews or nieces," Weber said. "You'll go into a three-room apartment, and three of those rooms plus the kitchen are full of different families, or a bunch of single guys, or a couple of ex-zeks and a couple of prostitutes."

"I wanted to keep it as domestic as possible and keep it consistent. I wanted to let their bodies speak for themselves. I also like the contrast of them being in domestic situations," he said.

Donald Weber
Donald Weber also takes pictures of the ex-cons' girlfriends, who usually work as prostitutes.
The men's bodies bear recurring motifs: Orthodox and communist themes, cats, snakes, elaborate military-style epaulettes, Nazi symbols and women. "I found them to be like preening peacocks; they were very proud of their tattoos, and they wanted to show them off to me and to the other guys," Weber said.

He has set himself the task of learning the symbolism of his subjects' tattoos, although some still baffle him.

"The easiest one is the Orthodox cross on the finger: It means you're a thief," he said. He is quick to point out that the Orthodox and communist themes are by no means intended to signify any kind of religious or ideological piety.

"I've heard that with the communist symbols, like the Lenins and Marxes, it's a way of saying, 'You may try to stick me with communism, but I'm not going to live in your system.' One guy told me that he put a Lenin on himself because he knew that he was going to be imprisoned, and he wanted to bring Lenin into prison with him. It's all about rebellion; it's basically about taking these sacred symbols and subverting them," he said.

"There's another guy I met (he's in one of my favourite photographs), he's got angels and bells on him. He's a Christian now, but he was a badass dude -- he was in prison three or four times," Weber said.

"He became a Christian in prison, and I asked him, 'Well, are your tattoos all about you being a Christian and finding God?' He said, 'No, I got all that before.' He basically said that any religious or communist or Nazi symbol is just about subverting authority."

"You see a lot of Nazi symbology: eagles, swastikas, a ton of Iron Crosses. It's a way of saying that you'll never kneel down for authority," Weber said.

"One guy said to me, 'Do you know what I have? I have the quality sign on my dick.' I asked what that meant and was told that this was the most hardcore tattoo any zek will ever have. So I said, 'OK, let's see.' On the head of his penis, there was a pentagon with a little star inside that said U.S.S.R., a stamp that was put on all goods in the Soviet Union, signifying market quality." That tattoo meant that the prisoner had raped a prison officer or policeman, he added.

"It's essentially what my whole project is about: What is the brutality and the oppression and the quest to crush that just seems built into the Slavic psyche?" Weber said.

His theme of domination has inspired him to document the zeks' relationships with women, and he aims to produce a parallel portrait series focusing on women associated with the men. Together, they will make up a collection titled "Zek i Natasha," or Zek and Natasha.

"Talking with a lot of these guys, they told me about how a prostitute is their natural lover or companion. I found that very fascinating. That's when I started photographing the 'Natashas,'" Weber said.

"The interesting thing about Natasha is that she's the companion to these guys who are supposedly as manly as they come, and yet I found some of the pictures of [the men] effeminate and delicate, [showing them] spread out on beds, lounging with their shirts off. The women were quite the opposite: With them, it's all about steely reserve," he said.

"With the Natashas, it was about trying to maintain their authority even though they didn't really have any. Natasha is the money-maker. Zek doesn't make any money, but Zek controls," he said.

"I find that in Russian culture everything comes down to power: public demonstrations of power and private demonstrations of power. You walk across a street here, and there is a guy in his car who is literally going to accelerate to run you down," Weber said. "I find it much more explicit here than anywhere else I've been."

Zek culture is simply a more extreme manifestation of wider society, Weber believes.

"I had one zek say to me, 'There's a big zone [the slang for prison] and a small zone. One is prison, one is the outside world, but which is which?' And he added, 'One is slightly more humane than the other.' I said, 'Which one?' And he said, 'I don't know: You tell me.'"

"Zek: In the Prison of the East" can be viewed at Donald Weber's first book, "Bastard Eden, Our Chernobyl," will be published by photolucida this year.