There is a moment when the subject lets their mask fall away and there is a kind of magic…
Adolescence is an ocean to be crossed without a chart. While the winds of adult expectation buffet and cajole in one direction or another, a deep hormonal undertow pulls the vessel in urgent but unfamiliar ways and each new experience re-maps the mind of the navigator like a palimpsest. It is a voyage between the Atlantis of childhood now sinking below the surface and the new adult world still some way off. It is a time of possibility and of doubt. Should the voyager stay with the flotilla of peers or ride the trades of societal expectation? Should they sail close to the wind, manoeuvring away from the prevailing forces of adult expectation to plot an independent course? And if they do, will they end up on the rocks?
It is this transitionary phase between child and adult that the Israeli photographer Michal Chelbin explores in her images of adolescents in Ukraine, Russia and Spain. Her early work followed acrobats, athletes and itinerant entertainers whose lives centred on physicality, costume and performance. By contrast, her photographs depicted them at rest, introspective. Behind the façade of showmanship her images hinted at a more complex and uncertain sense of being that has become a signature of her portraits. The later bodies of work that we discuss here focus on young wrestlers in Ukraine, prisoners in juvenile detention centres, and teenagers wearing modes of dress and uniform associated with the adult world; forms of costume that tacitly mould each nascent identity to the strictures of conformity.
If time changes individuals, events can change the context in which they are understood. They can and do change the world. These photographs were created in the first two decades of the century and this interview undertaken before the catastrophe of 24 February 2022. Many of these images were made in Ukraine, a country now desperately defending itself against brute Russian force. Many of the young people depicted have been thrust into a battle for their lives and those of their countrymen and women. It is a stark new context in which to reflect upon Michal Chelbin’s nuanced portraits, as the ship of adolescence plunges into the maelstrom of war.
When did you begin to make photographs?
I started at the age of fifteen when I enrolled in the photography department of a high school that specialised in the arts. No one from my family was into art but I was immediately drawn to it. I was very shy and quiet, but the camera empowered me. It let me find my ‘voice’.
In Israel, when you finish high school, you must do two years of national military service. I was assigned to be a photographer. I think that’s where I became interested in uniforms… and directing people. I was supposed to make documentary images, but I found myself telling the soldiers where to stand or which way to march.
Much of your work focuses on the transitional period of adolescence. What is it that interests you about this time of life?
Adolescence is such a difficult and intriguing time in a person’s life. It’s full of hopes and contradictions, in terms of body and soul. A riddle. There is a disparity between the developing body and the gaze, and a tension between how they present themselves to the outside world and their inner lives; a twilight zone between reality and fantasy. This fascinates me. There is something there that I want to reach, to uncover.
For example in the photograph of Lena and Katya sitting on a bed in a Ukrainian juvenile prison for girls. They are still teenagers, but they have done terrible things, adult things. They look so young and pure, except for their gaze… in their eyes there is something else, something harder… At other times, the subjects look like adults, but their eyes reveal a lingering childlike innocence.
I would like to start with the series ‘The Black Eye’. Where was this made and what drew you there?
These photographs were shot in Ukraine. Before I started the series I attended a wrestling competition and I saw then how exhausted the young competitors were after the fight – that moment when they are not yet fully recovered, when the gaze is more revealing. It’s when that contrast between their strength and vulnerability appears. I knew then that this was what I wanted to capture.
Human beings can be very contradictory in themselves – strong and weak, aware and naive. These boys have had a fantasy of manhood drilled into them day in, day out. It was something they had to live up to: the fantasy that fighting could turn them into champions.
How do you select the young people you photograph?
I am looking for what I call a ‘legendary’ quality. It’s a mix between odd and ordinary. So when I am looking for subjects to photograph I am searching for people who I feel have this quality.
For example, Ilya is a very beautiful, slightly feminine boy, but also super strong. He is tough and fragile at the same time, muscular and gentle at the same time. He reminded me of a painting by Caravaggio, an artist who has been a great influence on me. Caravaggio used male models for his female figures and so his paintings have this fascinating, equivocal quality.
Your series ‘Sailboats and Swans’ was made in various prisons and young-offender intuitions in Ukraine and Russia. What drew you to this subject?
Again, it’s the contrasts that fascinate me, and this world of prisons is full of them. What does it mean to be locked up and watched all day? Is it a humane act? Can one guess a person’s crime just by looking at their portrait? How can the same human being be both vulnerable and murderous? Do we punish, simply by looking at them? These portraits intend to confuse, to confront the viewer with these difficult questions. I struggle with them myself. It was particularly hard photographing the teenagers. They were just so sad.
I did not ask them why they were in prison until after the session was over. I did not want that knowledge to affect how I went about taking the photograph, or to colour the viewer’s sense of the person they are seeing.
Why did you call this series ‘Sailboats and Swans’?
These places did not look the way one expects a prison to look. The walls had these amazing wallpapers filled with ponds, lakes, flowers… and sailboats and swans. This is the kind of décor – the carpets, textures, floral and scenic wallpapers – you find in many apartments and homes in Ukraine and Russia, but it seems almost surreal that this aesthetic carries over into the prisons. It is in such sharp contrast to the realities of daily life there.
How did the young prisoners feel about being photographed? Was it hard to gain their trust?
This work was made over a period of three years in several different prisons in Ukraine and Russia. Getting photographed was totally voluntary and each time I went to a new prison I feared no one would turn up. But every time, when I got there, there was a long line of prisoners waiting to have their portrait taken. I think they really just wanted to be seen, to be acknowledged. In the portraits the prisoners are looking at the camera and engaging the viewer directly, it gives them a presence, an opportunity to be recognised as existing, remembered.
I think this is the most important body of work I have made.
Many of your photographs were shot in Ukraine, others in Russia. What is it draws you to those cultures?
It started twenty years ago when I began photographing people who had come to live in Israel from the former Soviet Union. They seemed full of contrasts, tough on the outside but warm on the inside. And, when I began to travel to these countries, I found I also liked the quality of light there and the locations.
In your most recent series ‘How to Dance the Waltz’ you bring together images of teenagers in Ukraine dressed for their school prom night, trainee matadors in Spain and other young people in different kinds of uniform. What were you looking for here?
I wanted to explore the connection and tension between young people and uniforms. These uniforms and other conventions of dressing formally come from the adult world. It’s a way in which society paves the way to traditional gender roles, to how one is supposed to be as a grown-up, what one is supposed to aspire to… but the individual underneath is still a child. Kids are expected to grow up really fast these days. Childhood is getting shorter, and having to wear uniforms and play traditional adult roles only amplifies this. There is a tension between that outer performance and costume and the young person inside that I find fascinating.
In my portraits, I am trying to let the individual appear from under the uniform. I want to address some of those universal questions about identity, about the desire for recognition, fame even, about the traditional roles expected of boys and girls. About who we are and what is expected of us.
When you look at the matadors, for example, they are so manly in the way they pose, their uniforms are so colourful and assertive… and yet, to my eyes, somehow feminine. It is hard to see that underneath they are just fragile adolescents. I want these portraits to capture a mixture of direct information and the enigma that lies behind it. Are they retreating back into the foliage, or perhaps emerging from it? For me, the photograph is just the tip of the iceberg beneath which is a story waiting to come to the surface.
The portraits are a kind of performance. Who decides the pose?
I direct the subjects and tell them how to pose, but I also remain open intuitively to things happening during the session and if the sitter naturally adopts an interesting pose I will go with it. I am responding to what I see. When I was photographing Katya and Arthur before their prom I just felt something about their relationship that led me to pose them like this. He was so gentle, and she was so sure of herself.
I think that for everyone involved it is a therapeutic process. It’s just me, the camera, the subject, and natural light. It’s very quiet. There is a moment when the subject lets their mask fall away and there is a kind of magic… it’s hard to describe. I sense it, but I still don’t fully understand it.
What kind of response to your work do you get from the public?
Many people tell me it reminds them of moments from their youth, their struggle to find their identity. It is always nice to get positive feedback from someone who is not into the arts, just responding emotionally to what they see.
What have you learned about yourself in the process of making your work?
I think the camera is just a tool to express what I see in the world. It also gives me strength. In life I am shy and keep to myself, but behind the camera I feel stronger and more confident.
Michal Chelbin was born in Haifa, Israel, in 1974. From 1997 to 2001 she studied photography at Wizo Academy of Education and Design, Haifa. Since 2000, she has exhibited widely in Israel and USA, and also in Belgium, Canada, Estonia, France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United Kingdom. Her photographs are held in a number of prestigious public and private collections including the Getty Center (Los Angeles), the Jewish Museum (New York), the Kadist Art Foundation (Paris), LACMA (Los Angeles), the Metropolitan Museum (New York), Portland Art Museum (Oregon),
SFMOMA (San Francisco), and Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Michal Chelbin has received a number of awards including the Oscar Hendler Prize (2004), the Constantiner Photography Award (2007) and the PDN Photo Annual Award for personal photography (2016). Her work has been widely published and features in four monographs: ‘Strangely Familiar’ [Aperture, 2008], ‘The Black Eye’ [Twin Palms, 2010], ‘Sailboats and Swans’ [Twin Palms, 2012], and ‘How to Dance the Waltz’ [Damiani, 2021]. She lives and works between Israel, France, and the United States.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.