Tag Archives: Religious Icons

Sailboats and Swans: The Prisons of Russia and Ukraine

What does prison look like?

In her latest body of work,  Sailboats and Swans, Israeli photographer Michal Chelbin challenges viewers to re-imagine the answer to this question. Working with her husband and co-producer, Oded Plotnizki, Chelbin spent three years photographing prisons in Ukraine and Russia from 2008 to 2010.

The pair used a network of connections, built over the 10 years they have worked in the region, to gain incredibly rare access to these facilities. What they found inside surprised them. Instead of grey concrete and steel, there were tropical wallpapers, lace-covered tables and furniture painted in glossy blues and greens. The prisoners in Chelbin’s photographs are not dressed in orange jumpsuits, but the floral housedresses, cloth jackets and rubber sandals common to village life in the region. Religious icons seem as ubiquitous as tattoos.

With only one day to work in each location, Chelbin and Plotnizki carefully explored these strange environments, quietly combing halls and common areas to find subjects for their portraits.

“It’s something I look for in their faces, their gaze,” Chelbin said, adding that it was intuition, rather than any specific characteristics, that guided their choices. “It’s not a formula. Some people have this quality that you can’t take them out of your head,” Plotnizki added.

The mood in each location varied widely. Chelbin and Plotnizki described the tense atmosphere of a young boys’ facility as a “living hell, ” while the residents of a men’s prison “were like zombies.”

But it was a prison for women and children in Ukraine that made the greatest emotional impact on Chelbin, who herself had two young children at the time of the shoot. In one frame from that facility, a nursery attendant dressed in white is pictured leaning on the corner of an oversized crib. Inside, toddlers play with rubber balls that mirror the bright, primary colors of a mural painted on wall behind them (slide #7).

The tired, distant expression of the attendant, whose name is Vika, is the only clue that this isn’t a happy scene. The children, we learn from Chelbin, were born in prison and have never known the outside world. Vika herself is a prisoner–charged with murder. She is also a mother, but cannot visit her own child who has been placed in an orphanage.

Chelbin chose not to ask each prisoner about their crimes until after their portrait sessions. Likewise, in the soon-to-be-released book of this work, captions containing the names and criminal charges of each prisoner are left to the last pages. In this way, viewers do not immediately know that a pair of sisters in matching dresses are in custody for violence and theft, or that a young man, reclining on a green iron bed, has been charged with murder.

There are a huge variety of faces in these portraits. There are young girls with pale, delicate skin and older women whose features are made severe with heavy makeup. There are boys so small they look more suited to grade school than prison and men whose scars indicate years of hard living. In all of them, though, there is a sense of dignity.

“I want people to look at the book and see themselves,” said Chelbin. “The circumstances of life could have brought anyone to this place.”

Michal Chelbin is an Israel-based photographer. See more of her work here

Chelbin’s latest body of work, Sailboats and Swans, will be released on Nov. 1 by Twin Palms Publishers. An exhibition of the work will be on display at the Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York City from Oct. 18 to Dec. 22

2011 Benefit & Auction Spotlight: Jane Hilton

Pat Meinzer, Cowboy, Benjamin, Texas 2009 © Jane Hilton/ Nailya Alexander Gallery

Jane Hilton is one of the many great artists featured in our 2011 Benefit and Auction. Her photograph Pat Meinzer, Cowboy, Benjamin, Texas will be up for bidding during the evening’s Live Auction. Inspired by a commission in 2006 to photograph a 17 year old cowboy, Jeremiah Karsten, who traveled 4,000 miles on horseback from his native Alaska to Mexico, Jane set off on her own four year pilgrimage, criss-crossing the cowboy states of Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Texas, New Mexico and Wyoming to capture America’s 21st century cowboys which has culminated in her recently published book – Dead Eagle Trail. This particular image was nominated for the 2010 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize and exhibited at The National Portrait Gallery as a runner up. She writes, of the image:

“This portrait is one of a series of cowboys I photographed in their homes, from the buckaroos of Nevada to the cowpunchers of Arizona and Texas. The paradox of photographing a cowboy at home, and showing their obsession with the lifestyle was much more fascinating to me, than photographing them on a horse.

A window acts as a constant reminder to the outside world. All of them were shocked that I wanted to go inside their houses, and sometimes even their bedrooms where they spend the least time. But it was much more interesting to see them in less familiar territory, revealing their softer and possibly more feminine side. They were always immaculate despite the harshness of their working environment. It is the contradictions that are infinitely more enlightening.

Pate’s bedroom clearly demonstrates a feminine touch by his wife, with their wedding photographs and religious icons on the walls. Most of the cowboys I photographed had a strong sense of spirituality. As one cowboy told me, “I don’t need to go to church. My horse is my church and I am out with God everyday.”

Freedom is a cowboys’ life. Most were brought up on ranches where it was always hard work and never particularly profitable. Even today a cowboy can expect to earn only a few dollars an hour, but this is not what drives them. Real cowboys boast of never having met a stranger, most can’t swim. All of them have a John Wayne story they love to share. This series is a celebration of The West as it is now. Nobody can predict whether in a hundred year’s time the cowboy will still be around.”

Jane Hilton is a photographer and filmmaker living in London. The contradictions in American society and the American dream are recurring themes in her work. She filmed a documentary series for the BBC, “The Brothel / Love For Sale,” as well as a series of exhibitions on desert landscapes, pimps and prostitutes. Jane’s work is regularly published in The Sunday Times Magazine and The Telegraph Magazine.

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