ON PHOTOGRAPHY | Russia’s and Ukraine’s juvenile prisoners glimpsed in Michal Chelbin’s photography

NEW YORK CITY |  Israeli photographer Michal Chelbin’s images of prisoners in Russia and Ukraine, most of them young people, are extraordinary.  In her latest body of work, “Sailboats and Swans,” Chelbin worked with her husband and co-producer, Oded Plotnizki, to spend three years photographing prisons in Ukraine and Russia from 2008 to 2010.

The logistics alone is a story worth telling. The pair used their connections, a network that had built for more the 10 years of working in the region, to gain incredibly rare access to these facilities.

Once inside, what they saw was a surprise. They were expecting grey concrete and steel. Instead they found tropical wallpapers, lace-covered tables and furniture painted in glossy blues and greens. The prisoners were not dressed in orange jumpsuits, but in floral house dresses, cloth jackets and rubber sandals common to village life in the region. Religious icons seemed as ubiquitous as tattoos.

They only had one day to work in each location. Chelbin and Plotnizki carefully combed halls and common areas to find subjects for their portraits. “It’s something I look for in their faces, their gaze,” Chelbin said, adding that it was intuition, rather than any specific characteristics, that guided their choices. “It’s not a formula. Some people have this quality that you can’t take them out of your head,” Plotnizki added.

On view at Andrea Meislin Gallery in Chelsea, “Sailboats and Swans” is stunning. In the end, Chelbin took photographs inside seven prisons in the Ukraine and Russia over the past four to six years.

Chelbin’s portraiture has always stood out for its visual contrasts – fantasy versus reality, in particular. The title, “Sailboats and Swans,” refers to the almost mocking, bucolic and fantastical murals and wallpaper backgrounds she found throughout the prisons. Her strange portraits document contradiction: girls’ flowery dress prison uniforms, murderers working as nannies to other women’s babies in the new mothers’ prison, young girls serving time alongside grandmothers, and human blend of fear and cruelty in the boys’ and mens’ prison.

Chelbin has been traveling to shoot in the Ukraine and Russia, the countries of her ancestors. She is drawn to the extreme contrasts and mythological qualities. She never asks the crime the prisoners committed until after finishing the portrait allowed the artist to see the individual through her lens, not the prisoner, in sittings that sometimes lasted for hours until the mask wore down.

“I usually photograph people outside the mainstream, and I look for faces and eyes that express the complexities of life and for a gaze that transcends from the private to the common,” stated Chelbin.

Michal Chelbin’s “Sailboats and Swans” is on view from October 18 – December 22, 2012, at Andrea Meislin Gallery, 534 West 24th Street, NYC. www.andreameislin.com

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