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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.

POSTSCRIPT

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?

FURTHER READING

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

For the past three years, Michal Chelbin has made portraits in the prisons of Russia and Ukraine. You can see a selection of the works from her series Locked on the New Yorker Photobooth blog.

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.

Perhaps now is a good time to return to some thoughts on what makes a great portrait, here and here.

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