Ask Michal Chelbin what surprised her the most when entering Ukrainian and Russian prisons and she’ll tell you it was the wallpaper. Those walls, coated with blooming flowers, ocean views and grassy meadows, were the inspiration behind the name of her latest series, “Sailboats and Swans.” Over four years, the Israeli photographer shot portraits of the residents of seven prisons, sitting at times several hours with one subject. A monograph published by Twin Palms earlier this year features 62 of her images, all taken with Chelbin’s signature Hasselblad 503. At times inscrutable, always honest, the portraits immediately make you question the rather faceless word inmate: here, what you see is a person first—and that person is looking straight at you. With a body of work that explores contrast in all its shapes—the old and the new, the innocent and the perverse, the familiar and the strange—Chelbin often finds her characters and stories in the depths of Ukraine and Russia. She joined me for a Skype interview from a small Israeli village between Haifa and Tel Aviv.
Roads & Kingdoms: How did “Sailboats and Swans” come about?
Michal Chelbin: It started when I was traveling in Ukraine for a different project several years ago—a monograph entitled “The Black Eye,” which was a series of portraits of wrestlers. We passed along a prison wall, and when I realized it was a prison, I wanted to get inside. Everyone said it would be impossible but I started making some inquiries and eventually got access.
Inside it’s still a boy’s prison, which is really hell on earth.
R&K: Can you tell me more about your relationship with Ukraine? When did you go for the first time and what attracts you to the country?
MC: It’s not just Ukraine, it’s Russia as well. It started in the late 90s when I was still a student and all my models were people who came to Israel in the big immigration waves from the former USSR. So the natural thing was to travel there. I went to Russia in 2003, and since then visited Russia and Ukraine several times. What I like about these countries is the mix between old and new, between the modern, the sophisticated and the classical, the rundown. The faces are great, and the light, and the backgrounds… It’s just a great setup for me.
R&K: Yes I had the same visual experience when traveling to Ukraine to find my grandfather’s birthplace…
MC: My father was born in Ukraine during World War 2, in a small town close to Rovno. Back then it was still Poland. Him and my grandfather fled west during the war.
R&K: So we’re almost connected! But back to the prisoners: describe the process in getting access. How easy was it to actually get inside and meet these people?
MC: It was very difficult to get access, and please understand if I cannot elaborate on this issue. Once inside, they usually assigned an officer to us, and spent the first few hours walking around, scouting and casting. And then we started to shoot. We were able to approach almost everyone we found interesting.