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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.

Unexpectedly, my posts on prison tattoo photography have been very popular – [1], [2], [3], and [4]. Continuing the theme, I’d like to feature the work of Herbert Hoffman.

From an early age, Herbert Hoffmann (1919-2010, b. Pommern, Germany) was drawn to people with tattoos. He was educated in Berlin. During the Third Reich, tattooed people were seen as criminals and consequently, the tattoo culture diminished. In 1940, Hoffman signed up for basic military service with the German army. From 1945-49, Hoffmann was held prisoner of war by the Russians. When he returned to Germany he worked as a travelling salesman, and encountered many persons who were tattooed despite the old Nazi ban. While working Hoffmann always took along his camera and photographed the people he met. In 1961, Hoffmann opened his own tattoo studio in Hamburg, Germany.


Hoffman distinguishes himself from photographers who look in at the tattoo culture from the outside. He defined the culture and then adopted the lion’s share of documenting it. Hoffman’s DIY method is like that of graffiti artists who return with a camera to make images of the surfaces which they have earlier decorated. (Notably, Hoffman’s tattooing preceded the rise of graffiti and its recognition as art/culture in the 1970s/80s.)

Aged 91, Hoffman passed away on June 30th of this year. Despite the indisputable novelty of his photographs, and his central position to German tattoo culture, Hoffman only received mainstream recognition very late in life. No surprise really; Hoffman was working with the maligned, ‘lowly vernacular’ medium of photography, to record the re-emerging tattoo subculture.


Hoffman’s images are on show at Ten Haaf Projects in Amsterdam until December 18th. Ten Haaf Projects, Laurierstraat 248, 1016 PT Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Tel: 020-4285885 And how good is this? At the Ten Haaf opening in October artist Henk Schiffmacher tattooed Hoffman’s designs on exhibition goers.


Hoffman’s books are here and a picture gallery of Hoffman’s life here.

Selected Solo Exhibitions: 2010 ‘Living Pictures’ Ten Haaf Projects Amsterdam; 2010 ‘St Pauli’s Souvenirs’ Galerie Lehmann Berlin. Publications: 2008 ‘Skinscapes, Die Kunst der Körperoberfläche’, text Herald Kimpel, Hrsg: H . Kimpel, Marburger Kunstverein Marburg; 2006 ‘Signs and Surfaces’ by Andreas Fux, Herbert Hoffmann, Ali Kepenek Hrsg Künstlerhaus Bethanien Berlin; ‘Mensch! Photographien aus Dresdner Sammlungen’, Hrsg: Wolfgang Hesse und Katja Schumann; ‘Kupferstichkabinett’, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.



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