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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.

© Pavel Maria Smejkal. From the 'Stars' series

For some, my deliberations about Bruce Gilden/Haitians might seem tepid compared to Pavel Maria Smejkal‘s use of people-as-props for his photographic art.

Smejkal’s Stars series is potentially about the reversal of fates, wasted potential, chance events and turns of fortune. It is also potentially insulting.

The question for me is whether digital composites of Auschwitz inmates and the faces of silver-screen stars is a good way to communicate an actually important philosophical position. Mrs. Deane (Beierle or Kei­jser) can’t say that Smejkal’s work is a success or not because they stumble at its first requirement to recognise the faces of inserted celebrities! Which is a nice side-step.

I too intend to hang up my judgement on this and simply pass on notice of the project for you to decide. My editor said a few months ago that Western culture – and photography in particular – had no sacred cows left to slaughter. In the manner in which sentiment and controversy whirl past without touching the sides these days, right now, I am inclined to agree.

– – –

Just as a footnote, Smejkal’s Stars series reminds me of Agan Harahap’s work Super Hero.

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