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New exhibition at Side Gallery focuses on life after the Berlin Wall came down

Notable documentary photographers have contributed to an exhibition about life after the Soviet Union

Mila Teshaieva Youngest member of Kadjar royal family in his grandfather's house in Baku. Azerbaijan. 2012
Youngest member of Kadjar royal family in his grandfather's house in Baku. Azerbaijan. 2012

One of the scariest sights currently on offer on Tyneside is to be found at the venerable Side Gallery, for many years a window on worlds less safe and secure than our own.

Venture into a ground floor alcove and you enter the grim interrogation room which became familiar territory for Canadian photo-journalist Donald Weber.

On three sides are images of beaten looking people, men and women, sitting at a cheap office table. Many of these people look scared and dishevelled. Some of them look beaten physically as well as mentally.

One man, pushed against the wall, has a handgun pressed against his temple. All we see of the man holding the weapon is his hand and arm – and a shadow thrown across a wall decorated in the marbled tones of raw meat.


It’s not clear if the finger is on the trigger but it hardly matters because the air of menace is the same.

Were these situations real or staged? You suspect the latter but apparently these are photographs taken during real police interrogations of suspected criminals in Ukraine.

Weber, we learn, first visited Ukraine on assignment during the so-called Orange Revolution which took place during the winter of 2004-5. Intrigued, he returned and spent six years documenting contemporary life in Ukraine and Russia.

He recorded the hardships under which people laboured and the heavy-handed wielding of power within a system lacking the checks and controls we are used to in this country and in the United States where Weber is based.

The photos – later to appear in his book, Interrogations – are not staged but they are the result of many years spent winning the trust of the police services.

They eventually gave Weber permission to photograph in the interrogation room and he then asked for the permission of those to be interogated. About 20% agreed to be photographed – perhaps it made them feel safer – and these are some of the resulting images.

Weber told one interviewer that far from being rogue police officers, those running the interrogation room were merely following standard procedure.

Weber also spent time in Chernobyl, exploring the area abandoned after the nuclear disaster of 1986. There he found burgeoning wildlife and people for whom the supposed health risks were preferable to life in polluted and crime-ridden cities.

Overall, it’s not a pretty picture. But each of Weber’s photographs is fascinating, inviting the viewer to put themselves in the interrogation room.

Donald Weber is just one contributor to the current Side gallery exhibition which is itself one of a series marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Graeme Rigby, of the Amber-Side film and photography collective, says not many people know the Newcastle-based outfit was responsible for this great event.

His reasoning is “that most things Amber documents are closed, finished or erased from public memory within a couple of years”.

In 1987 Amber documented life in Rostock, an East German town built on fishing and shipbuilding, in a film called From Marks & Spencer to Marx and Engels.

Graeme reckons they were possibly the only independent film-makers from the West to make such a film about East Germany. It came about as part of an exchange project with a film company called Defa, based in the old GDR (German Democratic Republic).

Amber went to Rostock and Defa came to Newcastle and North Tyneside to witness the expected collapse of capitalism after Black Monday – October 19, 1987, when stock markets crashed around the world.

Two years later it was East Germany that disappeared as the wall and the Soviet Union fell.

The Weber photographs are part of Legacy: Russia, Ukraine, Georgia & The Caucasus.

This is the second of three Side Gallery exhibitions under the heading Eurovisions which together, over the course of the year, mark the 25th anniversary of those momentous events.

The exhibition is the result of a collaboration with British photographer George Georgiou who is credited as the curator of this second in the trilogy.

Graeme explains that it looks at the new borderlands between East and West, the former Soviet republics now struggling for independence and identity between the pull of Russia on one side and the European Union on the other.

It was planned ahead of the bloody encounters between Ukrainians and Russians which have seen Crimea controversially dragged back into the embrace of newly assertive Russia. Current political events make it doubly fascinating.

Georgiou has worked extensively in the Balkans, Eastern Europe and Turkey over the years and has also exhibited before at Side Gallery.

A series of his photographs are displayed, collage-style, showing life in what looks like a thoroughly depressing urban environment.

Vast concrete buildings sit either side of almost traffic-free roads the width of airport runways.

A series of photographs shows a girl sitting in a booth situated near an escalator. It isn’t clear exactly what she’s doing but she has a uniform on and it looks for all the world like a job. But what job?

If this is a land of opportunity, then that is not the message transmitted here although the girl, I have to say, doesn’t look as miserable as many a booth-occupier I’ve seen in Britain.

Those concrete ex-Soviet monstrosities might make any sane person want to escape but clearly that’s not a feasible option for most.

Far better to create a form of instant escapism at home. That, surely, explains the fondness for exotic wallpaper among the Udmurt people of Russia which fascinated Netherlands-based Russian photographer Lucia Ganieva.

By decorating their homes with photographic wallpaper showing exotic locations – palm trees, beaches and bright blue sea are popular – the occupants of these houses can live their dreams of far distant shores.

It certainly won’t be the former Soviet resorts along the Black Sea they are dreaming of. They feature in the photos of Warsaw-based photographer Rafal Milach which are hymns to abandoned concrete in a sparsely populated land.

The most recent photographs in the exhibition date from early this year. Warriors, a body of work by Ukrainian photographer Alexander Chekmenev, portrays some of those who took to the streets of Kiev in the so-called Euromaidan uprising.

To further their demand for closer European integration, they put on balaclavas, picked up whatever would serve as a weapon and manned barricades. The photographs, taken before the bullets started flying, convey a mood of ragtag defiance.

The exhibition, on both floors of the Side Gallery – find it at 5-9 Side, Newcastle Quayside – runs until July 20.

The gallery is open Tuesday to Saturday, 11am to 5pm (Thursday until 7pm), and Sunday, 12 noon to 4pm. Admission is free. Find more details on www.amber-online.com


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