ARTIST SERIES

“Sailboats and Swans” is a series of portraits of prisoners in Russia and the Ukraine.

Chelbin’s work almost always takes the form of portraits and she usually photographs people outside the mainstream. She focuses on people who have a legendary quality about them — “a mix between odd and ordinary.”

When talking about this series, Chelbin shares: “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 also center each project on a group who share something in common — “Strangely Familiar” focuses on the small town performers, while “The Black Eye” is comprised of portraits of wrestlers and athletes.

Four 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.

When I was eventually allowed to take portraits inside the prison, I decided to ask the subjects about their crimes only after we had finished the photo session. I did not want to be influenced by the knowledge of what he or she did. I was only interested in the gaze and in unfolding a complicated scene for the viewer.

Prison is usually depicted in movies and television as full of energy and violence. I was surprised to find – the first time I entered a prison – a place of boring tiring routine. The majority of the men there are weak, fatigued and controlled by a small number of strong individuals. There are men who committed terrible crimes and are now walking around like zombies.

As much as the prison for adult males troubled me, the juvenile prison for boys was hell on earth. I could sense the terror in their eyes from the moment I entered. They are constantly being watched. Boys who stole a cell phone in adolescent prank are trying to survive next to boys who have raped and slaughtered. Being adolescents is hard enough and to be in prison at such a difficult age is almost unimaginable.”

The girls’s prison was another shock. Unlike the stories I heard, it was almost a haven, a place where girls who committed awful felonies are being kept safe from the dangers of the outside world, not the other way around. In the women’s prison I saw 22 year olds next to 70 year olds, women from the age of “maybe one day” next to the age of “no hope at all.”

Can we guess what a person’s crime is just by looking at their portrait? Does a killer still look like a killer? Is it human to be weak and murderous at the same time? Chelbin’s intentions are to confuse the viewer and to confront him with these questions.

Work by Michal Chelbin