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Dutch photographer Jan Banning is fascinated by what communism looks like today. In 2013, he set out to document the obscured activities of small Communist Party chapters in Italy, India, Nepal, Portugal and Russia.

“I’m interested in countries in which communism isn’t a dominating ideology and places I could assume that members do it out of conviction and not because they think it’s good for their career,” says Banning of the series, Red Utopia. “Many of the local party members I met, who are still plodding along, certainly have a place in my heart now — either because of their own sad fate or because of how they devote themselves to social justice, often unpaid, and in many practical ways offer help to ordinary people.”

I wrote about the work for Timeline. Read and see more: Photos: A look at communists and their humble party offices around the globe



I just wrote about Christopher Herwig’s new book Soviet Bus Stops Volume II for Timeline: Photos: From Brutalism to folk art, Soviet-era bus stops crush the myth of Communist homogeneity:

In 1975, the Soviet Ministry of Transport Construction dictated that bus stops “should pay special attention to modern architectural design, in accordance with the climate and the local and national characteristics of the area. Bus stops should be the compositional centers of the architectural ensemble of the road.” But if the shells of these structures reflected governmental decree, their quirky inventiveness is the result of the mores of local artisans.

These remote bus stops are the little cousins to the monumental Communist construction projects — the high-rises, TV towers, space shuttles, and state-owned factories—most of us are familiar with. In his new book, Soviet Bus Stops Volume II, photographer Christopher Herwig examines the Soviet-era bus stop as an architectural type, where regional planners flexed their patriotic muscle and pushed artistic boundaries. These humble structures challenge the preconception of the Soviet landscape as blandly homogeneous.

“Some were made by famous architects and artists,” says Herwig. “Some were made by road construction workers and probably even decorated by school children or at least university students on summer break. Some are one-offs and some are repeated.”

The book is published by Fuel.

Read and see more.


Colonel Matcegor Ivan Gregorevitch

Throughout the ongoing events in Crimea, eastern Ukraine and Russia, we’ve seen many images. Some good, some bad, but most briefly (tomorrow’s chip-wrap, and all that). Has photography adequately described the unfolding turmoil? For me, the jury is still out, but I’m in a combative mood this evening.

Of the news photography coverage I was impressed with those by Brendan Hoffman and Sergei Ponomarev (who’s been shooting in the region for years) and as a scene setter, I liked Maxim Dondyuk’s old work from a Russian kids military training camp. Of the amateurs, Dima Tolkachov showed us just how ripe for image-making Maidan Square was.

Knowing that armchair critics such as myself would be decrying the fact that photojournalism was doing exactly as it was supposed to do — capture wrought images of struggle with smoke, barricades and actions — a few photographers aimed to make series that were descriptive of the people and the struggle, but forged new typologies. Stationary typologies of weapons and fighters from within the front lines. Anastasia Taylor Lind and the duo Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni both made portraits and (sometimes within arms reach) Tom Jamieson and Donald Weber made studies of DIY weapons and molotov cocktails respectively. Of Jamieson and Weber’s work I’m ambivalent, even if critics I respect are all for it.

If I am being imprecise here, it is because I feel I can afford to be. I mention these photographers’ works as context for Julie David de Lossy‘s work which was made long before events erupted in Kiev. De Lossy’s series Black Sea Fleet Cadets and Black Sea Fleet Veterans are not reactive as the above-mentioned bodies of work are. Maybe, as a consumer of images, I am just more comfortable seeing formal portraits made in times of peace as opposed to times of shells and bullets falling all around?

Black Sea Fleets

Kolia, 20, Cadet at Nakhimova Institute

The Black Sea Fleet was an aging institution that was under threat of closure for decades. Somewhat ironically, the 2010 election of the now-ousted pro-Russian Yanukovitch as Ukraine president brought with it a new extended lease of the Black Sea Fleet facilities beyond 2042 (presumably now defunct). The Russians provided discounts on natural gas in exchange. Quite why the facilities to this old military group were part of negotiations between the Russians and Ukrainians is not entirely clear, yet de Lossy explains that  it recruited both Russian and Ukrainian cadets and that both Russians and Ukrainians honoured the veterans. De Lossy adds that in Sevastopol — where the Black Sea Fleet was based — is considered by the locals as a Russian territory.

It is within the experience of the ranks young and old that we might begin to discover the historic and complex ties between Russia and Ukraine. De Lossy’s work requires us to do more than identify the good guy and the bad guy from afar; indeed it instructs us that as history collides with current affairs our labels may shift. Whereas the work of many photographers is literally made on one side of the barricades or the other, and whereas such work has buy-in from one side or the other, archive work such as de Lossy’s takes us back to a time before people were forced to stand one side of the line or the other. It takes us to a time that explains the now.

Images of violence are images of loss; loss of stability, loss of choice (to a degree) and loss of self. In mainstream (news) images of ongoing revolution and violence, loss is an abstraction — the parameters and extent of loss are still being determined. Made in times of non-violence, de Lossy’s photographs depict the absence of violence. Her quiet portraits of cadets and veterans are a requiem for times not shaped by nationalism and conflict.

Quietness replaced by conflict is a grave loss. For all. However they identify.


Julie David de Lossy studied political sciences and international relations. She worked for two years at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brussels, before receiving a Masters degree in Conflict, Security and Development from King’s College London. For many years, she has photographed in Central Asia, working on the security and environmental issues in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. She has an ongoing project called ’20 Years After: Soviet Legacy in Central Asia.’ She lives in Brussels.


Prisoner Ustinova (2005)

Olga Chagaoutdinova‘s The Zone/Prisoners (2005 – 2007) is a series of psychological portraits taken in a women’s prison in the far eastern reaches of  Russia.

“The intent of the project was to observe human existence in a panoptic and punishing environment,” says Chagaoutdinova. “Extended interviews with the prisoners allowed me to investigate the notion of personal identity, virtually extinguished under the pressure and rules of the penal system. Gender issues and the official suppression of sexuality within the penitentiary system constituted a further aspect of my study.”

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.

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

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.

Earlier today, I posted House of the Dead (or How We See and Expect Tropes in Photographs of Russian Prisons) with images of blighted prisoners from art history. Regimented and downtrodden, the subjects of these historical works seem to me like precursors for the B&W grey photographs of Russian prisons, even today.

It was a set-up of sorts.

I used a selection of Sebastian Lister‘s photographs to illustrate my point, but I didn’t show you the majority of Lister’s portfolio, nor did I tell you why he had visited Prison Colony 29, Perm in Russia. (Sebastian, I hope you don’t mind my chicanery!)

Elsewhere in Sebastian’s portfolio are unexpected images of costume, make-up, curtain calls, cross-dressing, pressured script-reading, nervous rehearsals and opening night applause.

Sebastian joined Alex Dower, director, actor, musician and artistic director of Creating Freedom, an international production company working in prisons. For more information, click here and then on the ‘prisons’ tab. Russia Today produced a wonderful half-hour documentary about Dower’s project.

Prison theatre is a common mode of arts rehabilitation in Russia, and Sebastian Lister’s documentary photographs are valuable insight into the “movement”. Perm Colony’s players are diligent creatives and their activities allow for more positive representations of prisoners in the Great Bear nation.

If you’d like to see more, Sebastian has posted more images on his Facebook page.

Scroll down to read my Q&A with Sebastian.

How did you get involved?

I became involved with Theatre in Prison: Territory Festival 2009 having studied acting & directing with Alex Dower. We were trained in the science of acting by the Russian Sam Kogan in London. It seemed fitting to be taking Kogan’s system ‘back home’. It is a rigorous, research based approach which appeals to those with a strong work ethic. For the most part the prisoners relished the opportunity and thrived under Dower’s leadership.

Tell us about Alex Dower’s work in Russian prison theatre.
Dower is a pioneer in that his project was the first high-profile prison theatre project in Russia. It caught the eye of the authorities, some of whom now regard theatre (and perhaps the arts in general) as having a role in rehabilitation. The media interest was aided by the fact that Alex and I are British. Arrangements were complex – we didn’t have the go-ahead until a month or so before. The show was beamed onto a big screen in Perm during the Territory Festival 2009. Crucially, I would say Dower nurtures the prisoners as artists in their own right without any hint of condescension.

How seriously did they take the acting?
As a group the prisoners set about their job with a high degree of diligence. There were some stand-out levels of commitment. In fact, Igor, one of the cast of Chekhov’s “The Burbot” has been offered a job in the professional theatre. And ironically a former neo-nazi murderer played the Jewish lead in “My First Goose” by Babel, a story for which the main theme are fear and courage.

Why does prison theatre prosper? What is the psychology behind it?
I think prison theatre prospers because it is an opportunity for inmates to learn from the characters they play, to exercise their imaginations and to acquire a sense of freedom on stage, thus escaping from the confines and drudgery of their daily lives. There is also the thrill of an audience – including inmates and parents – witnessing this transformation. It is an occasion for them.

One negative aspect of the experience was the come-down the prisoners felt after the show. Future projects should take this into account.

How many of the prisoners would have attended theatres before imprisonment?
I don’t know the exact figures but I would say that barely any of the prisoners had been to the theatre before imprisonment. Most prisons (I’m not sure about the high security ones) have a theatre of some kind.

What are the motivations for the actors?
The motivations for the actors come from the challenges of the characters in the stories – Chekhov’s “The Burbot”, Babel’s “My First Goose” and “Butterfly” written by Albertik Sadrutdinov, one of the prisoners. Characters were discussed and interpreted in the first week of rehearsal. Tanja Arno, an actress from Moscow was the only member of the cast not from the prison.

What other activities are available to them at Colony 29, Perm?
Albertik Sadrutdinov (now free) gained a qualification in building fireplaces whilst in the colony. He also spent time running, meditating, working out in the gym, reading, and playing in a band. On our first day, during quite a media scramble, I saw prisoners in class learning geometry. There is also a “working zone” with a timber yard and metal working shop.

Do either you or Dower plan more prison theatre coverage?

Dower plans to direct in a prison in Kazan, Russia in November 2011, and in Columbia in February 2012. Whether I accompany him or not depends on the funding available.


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

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