Donald Weber: Making Pictures About Something vs. Pictures of Something

As Canadian photographer Donald Weber talks about the parallels of his work in Fukushima and Chernobyl, he also reminds us of the difference between making pictures about something as compared to pictures of something.

In a nutshell, what does the work of a photojournalist or documentary photographer entail? Canadian photographer Donald Weber summed it up nicely in his opening statement for a VICE Picture Perfect episode on photographing the Fukushima disaster. “I love photography, but I’m not really interested in a picture. There’s a difference between pictures of something, and pictures about something. And I wanted to make pictures about something.” Among his biggest bodies of work that drive this point home are two that draw the parallels between the nuclear disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima.

After giving some insights into his beginnings in photography, Weber went straight into how his interest in photographing Chernobyl was sparked by a childhood curiosity. “Everybody thinks Chernobyl is three-headed babies, and monsters, and mutant catfish, and such like that. And when I got up there, I was really pleasantly surprised that it had completely smashed any expectation,” he said on the experience. Years later, the 2011 Fukushima disaster happened, which he felt compelled to document as well “because it’s almost mirroring what’s happened with Chernobyl.” In both projects, he used a collection of “pictures about something” to tell us a visual story of life after a catastrophic nuclear accident. But when viewed in relation to each other, we get an even more gripping story of two devastating disasters and aftermaths that are so similar to each other.

Between the two disasters, however, Weber’s work in Fukushima’s exclusion zone — the only story about the area that came out at the time — proved more poignant, most likely because he already knew what to expect and photograph. “I just knew what I was going to find because I had that experience in Chernobyl, I kind of know about these wastelands, which are forgotten. It actually did meet every expectation but it also completely spooked me,” he mused. Weber’s Fukushima narrative was also driven by one key difference between the two disasters; while Chernobyl was an engineering problem, the other was a three-layered catastrophe brought about by an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear meltdown.

On who he is as a photographer and what he’s trying to say, Weber says he has always seen his career as a body. This tells us the importance of keeping our work — pictures about something rather than pictures of something — and delivery of messages as consistent as possible.


Screenshot image from the video by VICE