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Young Russian Prisoners. Source.
Last week, TIME’s Lightbox published Michal Chelbin’s portraits from Russian and Ukrainian prisons.
Michal Chelbin‘s work includes adults and juveniles, but there is a strong persuasion in her work to consider youth and beginnings. Much of Chelbin’s past work depicts children who are fighters, gymnasts, miners or contemporary dancers – it as if they’ve been fast-tracked to adult lives of graft, competition and discipline. In that regard, her portraits of imprisoned children continues a theme and I’d argue we are not only presented with the seriousness of their confinement but also glimpse the awareness these children have of their deprivation.
On top of those winning elements (in terms of hooking the viewer) there is the obvious exotic; Chelbin communicates the exotic – and manipulates it too – with clear emphasis on, as Lightbox lists, “tropical wallpapers, lace-covered tables, furniture painted in glossy blues and greens […] floral house-dresses, cloth jackets and rubber sandals common to village life in the region. Religious icons seem as ubiquitous as tattoos.”
Fair enough. But let us not just subscribe to Chelbin’s heavily constructed view. A few months ago a friend sent me a link to the spuriously titled and information-vacant Young Gangstas. I think you’ll agree, the images catch the eye. First, because of their novelty and second because these are self-representations.
People aren’t going to be swayed toward feeling empathy for these posturing “gangstas” as they may for Chelbin’s maudlin subjects and even though Chelbin worked fast on the single days she had access to prisons it doesn’t mean she didn’t work fast to create a myth. In a previous conversation with Prison Photography, she described her approach:
“While I shoot almost all my work in Russia or the Ukraine, I feel that my interest is not social or geographical, but rather a mythological one. I return to these countries because they provide me with the visual contrasts that are the basic set up I am searching for – between old and new, odd and ordinary, as well as fantasy and reality. When I record a scene, my aim is to create a mixture of plain information and riddles so that not everything is resolved in the image.”
How different is this to the self-made camera phone photographs? In their naive posturing, and certainly in their tattoos, the young Russian prisoners are pushing their own mythology. One cannot know what the “photographer” holding the mobile phone had in mind, or if any of the subjects would expect their snaps to make it onto the web for a foreign audience.
If riddles are Chelbin’s game, and mystery her currency, maybe she’s found a match in these anonymous camera phone portraits? Forget about the gulf in aesthetic intent and you quickly realise there are as many unanswered questions, as many riddles about the cameras’ presence, and the photographer-subject relationships in the two bodies of work.
It might just be that Chelbin’s serves a much more palatable representation (for Western audiences). And that’s why her images are on a gallery wall right now.
Sergey, imprisoned for violence against women, juvenile prison, Russia © Michal Chelbin
Young Russian Prisoners. Source.
© Michal Chelbin
Young Russian Prisoners. Source.
“The unseen subject of these photographs is Power. They show us the human limits to the understanding of Power. There are many things we don’t know about Power. We don’t know if Power is the same everywhere, if its manifestation in one place and time is meaningful, measurable, subject to the same laws as another.”
- – Donald Weber, ‘Confessions of an Invisible Man’, Interrogations, pg. 158
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At passport control my fingerprints flagged an “interaction” with the police authorities five months prior. Directed to a waiting room, I was told to take a seat and remain there until a customs and immigration officer could clarify the details of said interaction.
I wasn’t told how long the wait would be.
Thumbing around in my bag for some reading material to pass the time, I broke a wry smile when I pulled out Donald Weber’s Interrogations. He’d mailed it a few weeks prior. This was the first chance I’d had to look it over.
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Held by a stitched spine, the 160 pages taper to the centre on the outside edge of the book (see image above).
Weber and publisher Schilt also made the decision to bind it in the same wallpaper stock that hangs on the wall behind many of the detainees. Weber has come to see the modern State as “a primitive and bloody sacrificial rite of unnamed Power.” The choice of the outmoded wallpaper is an unnerving nod to the Power of a throwback era and brings us closer to the outmoded policing within these outmoded spaces.
Weber spent months – possibly years – building a rapport with the police department in order to sit in on their questioning and to make photographs. “I would just sit there from 9am in the morning to the evening, and just wait. I went days without actually taking pictures. It’s a game of chicken, and I always flinch last,” Weber told Colin Pantall. I’m a little disappointed Weber doesn’t provide the name of the station or town it is in. All we know is that it is in Ukraine.
Interrogations is an unorthodox, shocking and depressing portraiture project. A juvenile, with words scrawled on his forehead in black marker-pen, sobs; a woman in a dirty sheepskin coat resembles more a carcass than a human; in a sequence of three images we witness one detainee first, terrified; second, threatened by an open palmed strike; and third, with a gun to his temple.
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I was sat awaiting the inconvenience of an unnecessary interview, but I was certainly not awaiting the psychological and physical abuse meted out to Weber’s subjects.
After our brief chat, the immigration officer asked me if I had any questions and assured me I wasn’t on camera. In a relatively powerless position, to not be recorded was a small victory, I considered.
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This idea of being seen during an interview goes to the heart of Weber’s series.
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Here I was, subject to networked systems of law enforcement and U.S. Homeland Security, but I could be sure I’d not face the intimacy of abuse depicted in Weber’s photographs.
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The strength of Interrogations is that it teeters on an ethical dilemma: should Weber have been present? In attendance, was Weber complicit? Are his photographs further abuse and violation?
The answers are also easier to find than we might think.
I’d argue Weber’s presence had little to no effect on the behaviours of the interviewers. Given the time he spent in interrogation rooms (evidenced by 51 portraits no less) I’m inclined to subscribe to the reasoning that eventually a photographer’s presence is taken for granted/forgotten and behaviour is less and less effected by the camera-wielding observer.
Diane Smyth, for BJP, describes the interrogations as violating theatre, “Igor and his partners play good cop, bad cop (“or actually, really bad cop, and bad cop”), using threats and intimidation to break the suspects they are questioning in the seemingly anodyne pink room.” Weber sat in the stalls, watching.
One presumes that if Weber’s attendance did alter activities it was to lessen the abuse, not escalate it?
When we are faced with decidedly uncomfortable (abusive) scenes in photography, we cannot help ourselves but to think of the photographer as in some way complicit. This is a sure way to derail inquiry; it is an emotional response that centres on the act of photography instead of the subject. As Susie Linfield lays out in The Cruel Radiance, photography of atrocity can as easily provide an opportunity to dismiss the act, distance ourselves from the images, and move away from topic at hand.
Weber’s work is in our face, but that doesn’t mean we should turn away. An illustrated prologue of Weber’s six years in the former Soviet provide some context for Interrogations. These darker, exploratory more ambiguous images temper a presumption that Interrogations was a smash-and-grab job; we know Weber spent years in the region and that he built-up to this particular project.
Similarly, Weber’s essay, ‘Confessions’ and Larry Frolick’s epilogue provide insight into living within the milieu of policing, crime and punishment in Russia and Ukraine. These elements of the book together provide opportunities for us to enter into the complex society in which Weber lived and worked.
Bluntly put, the superimposed dilemma of a photographer’s ethics are the least of the concerns for the people in the region and in Weber’s photographs.
Weber provides no caption information for his subjects. Did he ever have access to it?
In his brief essay, Weber is aware of his role as photographer within a web of power (with a capital P); how else would he be granted entry to interrogation rooms? Weber puts the meaning of his photographs not fully on the lives of his unknown subjects, but in the context of institutional power.
“We do know that Power is dangerous and exhilarating,” says Weber in the book’s essay, “It expands in proportion to its invisibility.”
With that, instead of asking what does it mean for a photographer to witness institutional abuse, we should be asking what does it mean when there is no witness, photographer or otherwise?
Interrogations, (160 pages) by Donald Weber (2011)
Published by Schilt, Amsterdam.
Designed by Teun van der Heijden of Heijdens Karwei, Amsterdam.
Printed by Wachter GmbH, in Bönnigheim, Baden-Württemberg, Germany.
Distributed by Thames & Hudson worldwide. Distributed by Ingram in North America.
Last month the New Yorker Photobooth ran a sneak preview of Michal Chelbin‘s tentatively titled Locked series. At the time, I responded with some personal frustration that her portraits didn’t tell me enough of the subject’s experience. Having invited Chelbin to answer a few questions it is clear she uses ambiguity and mystery as tactics in her photography.
Q & A
When I first saw works from Locked I was fascinated, but I was also frustrated because I know so little about this region of the world. This was compounded by the incredible beauty of your portraits. After people have seen your portraits, what do you hope people will do, go on to think, talk about or read?
While I shoot almost all my work in Russia or the Ukraine, I feel that my interest is not social or geographical, but rather a mythological one. I return to these countries because they provide me with the visual contrasts that are the basic set up I am searching for – between old and new, odd and ordinary, as well as fantasy and reality.
When I record a scene, my aim is to create a mixture of plain information and riddles so that not everything is resolved in the image. A series of questions is asked when looking at these photographs – Who is this person? Why is he dressed like this? What does it mean to be locked? Is it a human act? Is it fair? What do we see when we look at a locked person? What do we usually think of when we hear the word “prison?” Do we try to find that his living conditions are reasonable, to comfort ourselves? Do we punish him with our eyes? Can we guess what a person’s crime is just by looking at his portrait? Does a killer still look like a killer? Is it human to be weak and murderous at the same time?
My intentions are to confuse the viewer and to confront him with these questions, which are the same questions with which I myself still struggle with.
You’ve worked on this project for three years. You’re obviously very committed. Why prisons? Why prisoners?
Three years ago, while visiting the Ukraine, I passed along a high brick wall. Next to it stood two men. Our eyes crossed and I can still remember their eyes today – they expressed this mesmerizing human blend of fear and cruelty. I was later told this was a men’s prison and from that moment I wanted to see what was inside.
Why three years?
All my projects take more than one year to complete usually. I didn’t just go to one prison for several days and that’s it – this might have worked for a documentary photographer, but not for portraits, at least not for me. I shoot a lot in each trip but chose very few so to have a complete body of work require several trips. I wanted to visit several prisons, which meant [spending] more time. It takes time to organize.
How does Locked relate to your earlier bodies of work?
I think it is a direct continuation of Strangely Familiar and The Black Eye. I try to focus on people who have what I refer to as a legendary quality about them – a mix between odd and ordinary. I search for faces and eyes who express the complexities of life and for a gaze that transcends from the private to the common. I found it in the prison too.
From the series Strangely Familiar © Michal Chelbin
From the series The Black Eye © Michal Chelbin
How did you get inside the prisons?
Unfortunately, due to the nature of the project and the subject matter, I can not disclose how I got access.
You asked the subjects what they had been sentenced for. Is this information you’ll share with us, the audience?
I asked each subject what was he sentenced for, but only after the photo session was over. I didn’t want to this knowledge to influence me while shooting. I am thinking quite a bit about whether to share or not share this information. Usually people who see the images ask me what this person did and most viewers do want to know. But I don’t want it to become something “documentary”, like “this is a portrait of a rapist etc”.
I think that when the work will be shown in an exhibition, I will put this info available for the viewers but not next to the photograph (like in a separate list). Same in the monograph – maybe a list of plates in the end of the book, but not next to the image.
What makes a good portrait?
God … I wish I knew. Well, I can say that my images take the form of portraits and focus on visual contrasts. I find people to be the perfect subjects; they possess contrasting qualities that seemingly cannot co-exist in them as humans.
I like it when a photograph leaves a taste of mystery, or in other words, I think it works when an image presents more questions than answers. For me, the image is like a gate to thousand possible stories, some appealing and some troubling.
People often ask me about my interpretation to my photographs, since the images can be read in different, sometimes contradicting ways. My answer is that I honestly don’t know, and my opinion doesn’t really matter.
Were there any surprises or difficulties during the project?
There were hardly any difficulties with the subjects. Most of them agreed to be photographed. Especially in portraiture, it is impossible to photograph someone who doesn’t want to be photographed. So if someone refused, I respected it.
I neglected to ask Chelbin why the majority of her subjects are youths. As she said, Locked is a continuation of her other series Strangely Familiar and The Black Eye which are about gymnast/circus performers and young athletes, respectively. Through her lens, juveniles encapsulate contradiction.
I found this quote (my bolding) by Chelbin from an interview with Creative&Live about Strangely Familiar in which she describes her approach:
“Many of my subjects are adolescents, in this difficult age between innocence and experience and I try to create an informal scene, in which they directly confront the viewer. As performers I think they mature very quickly – with the seductive costumes, the show it self might be more for adults then for kids. They always had a fake smile on their face, “a mask”, so my first instruction was to tell them not to smile. It allowed me to focus on them as individuals.”
I am left to wonder if – outside the frame of her portraits – any of Chelbin’s incarcerated subjects have cause to smile?
A Conversation with Michal Chelbin, on Nympthoto
Interviews: Michal Chelbin and The Black Eye, on photo-eye
Spoken Word: Michal Chelbin, on Workprints
Sailboats and Swans: The Prisons of Russia and Ukraine, on TIME’s Lightbox
Natasha, Women’s Prison, 2009. © Michal Chelbin
Chelbin’s doleful portraits are striking – something different – and, of course, given their subject matter I was compelled to mention them here. However, without any specialist knowledge of the prisons in Russia and Ukraine, I struggled to think of a worthwhile statement to accompany with them. Is it enough for me just to say that work is beautiful and interesting? I don’t think so.
Therefore, this conundrum becomes the focus of this short post.
The way Chelbin describes it, her portraits are the first step on a journey (of undetermined length) to at least attempt to “know” her subjects:
“When I record a scene, my aim is to create a mixture of plain information and riddles, so that not everything is resolved in the image. Who is this person? Why is he dressed like this? What does it mean to be locked up? Is it a human act? Is it fair? Do we punish him with our eyes? Can we guess what a person’s crime is just by looking at his portrait? Is it human to be weak and murderous at the same time? My intentions are to confuse the viewer and to confront him with these questions, which are the same questions with which I myself still struggle.”
It seems to me that this the type of curiosity we should expect of all photographers and their works; it’s partly how we are drawn into the previously unknown.
But the unknown has its dangers. As Fred Ritchin stated:
“Photography too often confirms preconceptions and distances the reader from more nuanced realities. The people in the frame are often depicted as too foreign, too exotic, or simply too different to be easily understood.”
Beautiful photography is easy to come by these days, and so, for me at least, viewing beguiling portraiture becomes an act of enjoying the beauty but then stepping further and using it to get at something deeper. That might involve a dialogue with someone over coffee; it might be to find comparative examples [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]; it might be to read up on the conditions for juvenile prisoners in Russian prisons; it might be to read the photographer’s statement or even contact the photographer directly to seek the missing pieces.
Photographs, and particularly portraits, are often a door unlocked but often in our busy lives we don’t even try the handle.
It sounds asinine to describe a prison as beautiful. Perhaps, the warm tones of the theatre-house in Kharkiv’s penal colony are a lure. But, I don’t want to budge on this; Maslov’s images are sumptuous.
Let us not forget though, the photographic series, however beautiful, is the product of specific circumstances. The more we know about these circumstances the better equipped we are to understand them and their content. Last week, Sasha and I talked over Skype about the details of the project.
How did you arrive upon the subject?
I had a couple of friends who had been running a theatre class in a prison in Kharkiv, Ukraine. I thought it was a great subject so I went along. Theatre performers aren’t what you expect to see in a prison. Being an actor is a ridiculous notion for criminals; you’re basically putting yourself in the position of the fool. The prison was maximum security so they were in there for serious crimes. At the beginning it was … kind of creepy, but then I got used to it.
I wanted to shoot with film. Initially, the warden said I’d have to use digital equipment, but I explained it was essential I used film and showed him some of my images. In the end, he permitted it.
It looks like you were you there for the final performances. How long had they been rehearsing and how many times did you visit?
They’d been working on the play for 9 months. I went in three times, but most of the shots from the project were taken on the day of the main performance.
What message did you hope to communicate with the project?
I go into all projects very open, without really knowing what it’s going to be like and if I will actually have anything at all in the end; what can I see? What can I tell? I think this is best.
Some of your subjects seem uncomfortable with the camera?
Yes. It is understandable as cameras aren’t something they are used to. Some don’t want to be seen for obvious reasons. Those acting in the troupe were more open to being photographed. I felt like during the new experience for them with this theatre they opened new horizons, but generally in prison the feeling is that the camera is not your friend.
I actually tried to shoot in two prisons, they other being a women’s prison but nothing came out of that project. The women acted very differently around the camera. Every time they saw the camera they’d change something. They’d usually smile. They would present themselves for the camera. The women always smiled. Once, I caught a glance of a female prisoners glaring at a male guard. It was a real wolf glare. I lifted the camera, but instantly she saw me and changed her look. Her eyes became those of kittens.
Perhaps this desire to perform or adapt for the camera by female prisoners is something you could work with in the future? Deborah Luster worked with the females in the Louisiana prison system making portraits of them in full theatrical costumes.
Yes, it would be interesting to shoot there again. But also, people aren’t totally truthful. They can’t talk about things that are difficult. I wasn’t allowed in their cells. The experience changed me. Not massively, but it did make me look at things a little differently.
In Ukraine can one assume certain things about the prison population? I ask this because in America’s medium security prisons where men can be serving long to life sentences, some may not be there because they are violent offenders. It is the non-violent men who are warehoused who seem to lose most through harsh sentencing. Does this mix of offender-types occur in Ukraine?
I cannot say. Of course, I never asked. One inmate did say to me, “You don’t have to pretend to respect me. You know I am in here because of something terrible I did.” But, I wasn’t pretending to respect anyone. These people were new for me, if you don’t consider the place where the [project] took place you are not able to form any prejudice.
Do you know what percentage of the men would eventually be released?
No, but I know some were due to be released very soon. One actor was due to be released one day before of the performance, but he preferred to stay for another week so that he could perform the show.
Right before show began I took a shot of a woman in the audience. I will never forget this moment. Later I found out she was a mother of one of the inmates in the troupe. She had come to tell him that his brother had died on the outside. She waited until after he’d finished the show because she didn’t want to ruin his performance. It was only afterward when I found this out I understood why she did not smile during the show.
And how was the show?
The dramatics were amazing to see. Many of the men struggled over and above their usual habits to get the lines out. The play was The House that Swift Built, which is a fiction about a house full of ridiculous items and fantastic people. Jonathan Swift tells unbelievable stories and plays practical jokes, the nature of existence in and outside the house is questioned. The players have the potential to transform their lives. Of course it was interesting to see this done by prisoners.
Still, many of the lines were delivered with arrogance. Even in soft conversation, the actors came across as brash. They are used to being in a defensive position so there was always a strange arrogance … or little aggression.
Did the inmates see your prints?
Yes, I sent prints to the prison. If there was a shot with two prisoners in it, I’d send two copies. I don’t know how they divided all the works among the guys but I know they got them.
Did you ever have to secure model release forms?
[Laughs] No. I only had to agree on the project with the warden. The fact my friends had been there a while also made my case easier. The warden was forward thinking by Ukrainian standards. He was interested in the publicity it would gain for his prison.
What are the general thoughts of prisons among the Ukrainian public?
That they are places you shouldn’t go. Prisons are tough everywhere. After you get out, you just have a new set of complexes.
How do former-prisoners fare in Ukraine? For example, ex-prisoners in the US have to petition to gain their right to vote back. How does it compare?
Ukrainian prisoners can vote in prison. But, more generally, prison is forever a stain on your character. Human rights violations occur in prisons all the time – stabbings, abuses of power by the guards. You hear about these things on the news. But these instances are just pieces of sand on the beach. It could be a much larger problem. Perhaps it is but we don’t hear about it.
Well, it is an amazing glimpse for us all to get at an arts program inside a Ukrainian prison. What equipment did you use?
I shot with a Kiev 6S, a 6×6 medium format camera. It is bulky and heavy. I really liked working with it but I was always very visible to the prisoners with this thing in my hands. And the sound that it makes is beyond any politeness.
What comes next?
I have two things on. I have just got back from Donbass, a region in Eastern Ukraine where I was doing a story on coal miners. It was an amazing experience, because for 20 years nothing has changed there except dramatic decline of population. There are small towns that lived off coal mines in Soviet period, but many mines were shut down or there are places where 5-6 thousands people worked and now there are 50-70 miners. It’s sad and fascinating area. The story will be out in a few weeks. I am also working on a show of photographic portraits for a gallery in Ukraine.
How do you pick your subjects?
I do what I think is important. I don’t plan too far ahead. I’ll be interested to see what happens in the near future with the industry.
You heard this month about Christopher Anderson saying, “The death of journalism is bad for society, but we’ll be better off with less photojournalism. I won’t miss the self-important, self-congratulatory, hypocritical part of photojournalism at all. The industry has been a fraud for some time.”
I didn’t but he could be right. There are trends in photography. When the trends change, there seems to be two types of response. The first is to chase and feed the trend. The second is – in the uncertainty – to stick to what is valuable to you, and that will usually be something you like. The best work will always come form that second approach. And as for the market; the market is like the ocean. It can change three or four times a day. There’s no use in trying to predict that.
True. Thanks Sasha
Klavdij Sluban and Jim Casper of LensCulture talked about Klavdij’s photography workshops in juvenile prisons across the world.
Early in the interview, Klavdij discloses his personal sadness that prisons exist. This emotion may be raw but it is not naive; Klavdij is balanced and realistic about what he can achieve with a camera in these specific distopias. He also says in seven words what I established this blog to say “Jails are a world to be discovered.”
He went to the prisons not as photographer, but as a concerned citizen. He realised if he were to go inside it would need to be with some reciprocity … so he took cameras and used them.
In terms of engagement and commitment to a population – the youth prison population of the world – Klavdij Sluban could and should be considered a ‘Concerned Photographer’. He deserves that loaded epithet.