Captured on Camera: Portraits of Prisoners in Russia and Ukraine

Israeli photographer Michal Chelbin, who spent 4 years in and out of prisons, reveals a world of despair and cruelty.

Michal Chelbin

The latest body of work by Israeli-born Michal Chelbin, which was shot in seven prisons in Ukraine and Russia over the past four years, examines what it is to be locked up and observed all the time − and the significance of looking at a person in that situation, inside his surrealistic “world within a world.” Chelbin’s portraits are known for their visual contrasts − old and new, strange and ordinary, imaginary and realistic, and for the fact that they expose iconic qualities in people, qualities that are not always visible at first glance.

“Sailboats and Swans,” the title of Chelbin’s 2012 book (Twin Palms Publishers), refers to the pastoral and somewhat ironic murals and fantasy-themed wallpaper she found during her visits to the facilities. Such stark contrasts in prison life can also be found in the flowered uniforms of some young female inmates, in the murderers working as caregivers for the babies of other woman inmates in the prison for women and children, and in the young women who are imprisoned alongside grandmothers − testimony perhaps of the younger inmates’ future. And there is also the fascinating human mixture of fear and cruelty in the jails for boys and men, where you can see the large tattooed body of a person resembling a zombie, exhausted by the everyday travails of trying to survive while imprisoned in a world without hope.

For the past decade Chelbin, while photographing in Ukraine and Russia, has been attracted to extreme contrasts. She received rare access to create portraits of prisoners. During the shooting for a given portrait, which sometimes took a long time until Chelbin felt that the person's “mask” had been removed, she says she didn’t ask her subject what his or her crime was. She did so only after her work had ended, and in that way was able to see the person, rather than the prisoner, through her lens. “I usually photograph people outside the mainstream, and I look for faces and eyes that express the complexity of life, and the look that crosses over from the individual to the universal,” says Chelbin.

This article originally appeared on the Haaretz photography blog, http://blogs.haaretz.co.il/hasifa/2248/