Wednesday, May 25

Dance Week in Ukraine: Michal Chelbin’s Best Photography | Art and Design

TTwo things in particular have always attracted me to my work: teenagers and wardrobe. I’m interested in age, around 16 and 17, which is full of transition. During those years there is confusion everywhere: confusion about roles, confusion about gender. There are many changes that people must deal with.

In 2008, I traveled to Ukraine to take pictures of children during their prom week which marks the end of their school years. They are very young, but they are entering a stage in their lives where they are expected to act like adults. Prom is an example of this. They are not always comfortable in the clothes they wear.

I liked the photos of the proms, but at first I didn’t do anything with them, they were in a drawer for years. But when I started working on a book about costumes and uniforms, shooting by bullfighters in training in Spain, and military internships in Ukraine, I decided to go back to film more prom balls. I realize they shared a similar theme.

I met Katya while photographing groups of children at her school in the suburbs of Kiev in 2019. She was 17 years old and very interested in having her picture taken. Looking around the school for places to do a solo shot, I found the nurse’s office. I took Katya there and the nurse was at her desk taking notes. She didn’t want to disturb her work, but she was so focused on what she was doing that it didn’t matter. I asked Katya to sit in the room and the nurse kept doing her thing. I really liked the setup, it reminded me of Vermeer’s painting, Lady writing a letter with her maid. We took a few more pictures together, but this is the one I liked the most. If there is any uncertainty or apprehension in Katya’s expression, then I don’t think that has to do with the nurse or being in front of the camera, it’s how old she is.

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This image is a mix of documentary and staged photography. Visually I always look for those moments when things get mixed up. There is the contrast between old and young, the fact that someone wears their best dress and a girdle while the nurse wears a very simple dress. One looks directly at the camera and the other ignores it. Katya is dressed as a woman but she is still a girl. I feel like there is something very authentic about it.

I always shoot on film, I never use digital. Nor do I use artificial lights. I am attracted to paintings filled with natural light, especially Baroque and Renaissance paintings, where the light in them is usually from the windows. My sets are always very calm and easy. I don’t carry a lot of gear, just a Hasselblad on a tripod, because that can help me gain the trust of my subjects. It also helps me to be more spontaneous and intimate. I think that’s why the nurse was able to keep doing what she’s doing and didn’t feel the need to leave while we were shooting. It is important not to intimidate subjects and to make things appear as natural as possible.

Ukraine fascinates me: the aesthetics and interiors of the Eastern European country are a real mix between old and new. In many of the schools I visited, gender roles are well defined: girls learn to be “girls” and wear pink, and men have more masculine roles to take on.

Most of the clothes my subjects wear were given to them by their parents. They are often oversized and can look like children in adult clothing. I think there is something sad about the expectations placed on people at this age. This is especially the case in places that have strict rules about the need for boys to behave like men, although they can be very fragile. We are all human beings full of contradictions and this time is very extreme. What I hope is that even if someone has to wear costumes or uniforms and act in a role that they don’t trust, they can eventually find themselves.


Michal chelbin

Was born: Israel, 1974.
Trained: Master of Photography at WIZO Haifa Academy of Art and Design.
Influences: Vermeer, Caravaggio, Velásquez, Diane Arbus, August Sander.
Decisive point: “My first monograph published by Aperture in 2008”.
Low point: “Developing rolls after a session and discovering that there is nothing!”
Better advice: “Follow your intuition”.

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