Michal Chelbin: “I want my works to be accessible to everyone, not exclusively to people with an art background”

Michal Chelbin: “I want my works to be accessible to everyone, not exclusively to people with an art background”

Interview in english and greek by Ifigeneia Sakkou

Greek version

Ms Chelbin, thank you very much for your response to our invitation. We are so glad and honored to have your interview in Photologio.gr. Since your early age photography has played a principal role in your life. Can you please share with us what was the first thing that, draw you to photography at the age of fifteen?
I started my interest in photography at the age of 15, when I joined the photography Dept. in a high school for the arts. After high school, like everyone in Israel, I did my military service. I served as a photographer in the Spokesman unit for 2 years, gaining experience in field photography.  I remember already then i wanted to direct my subjects and I didn’t settle for just shooting it documentary/watching from the side. I wanted to create my own image.

Michal Chelbin – Sasha, Russia 2003

People’s portraiture is your main photographic interest. As you have mentioned in the past you “photograph people who have a legendary quality in them, a mix between odd and ordinary”. Can you please elaborate?
I like the outcasts or the “androgenous characters.” For example, this kid, (להצביע,( Sasha wasn’t the star of his ballroom dancing group.  All the other parents were surprised that I focused on him, and tried to make me photograph their kids instead. But they weren’t as interesting as him and I think I was drawn to him because there was something so androgynous about him.

Michal Chelbin – Nikita and Nastya, Ukraine 2019

Your artistic photographic work, consists of four distinguished photographic series published all in books, “Strangely Familiar”, “The Black Eye”, “Sailboats and Swans”, “How to dance the Waltz”. What inspires you in creating a project and how do you work from the initial idea and the first inspiration to the actual moment of photo shooting. What is the central idea in these monographs?
The monographs each have their own theme. One overlapping concept is that they deal with people (often young people) in uniform. I am interested in visual contrasts, tensions and aesthetic concepts.

Michal Chelbin- Nastya Russia, 2003

Adolescence and teenagers are often presented in your work. What draws you to them? What are the special difficulties in photo shooting younger ages?
I like the uncorrupted, innocent, naïve quality of adolescence. In my experience, the young people have been wonderful to work with.

Michal Chelbin – Bogdan, Ukraine 2017

Photographing people in their uniforms seems a constant inspiration in all your projects. What’s special about it? Do you think that dressed in their uniform they reveal to the audience some special characteristics of their personality? Is the uniform shaping their identity somehow?
In terms of the narrative I can say that most of the people that appear in these images have something in common- they are not from the “mainstream” and they are mainly local or small town performers, like acrobats, ballroom dancers and contortionists.
The outfits or uniforms they wear are connected to another element which interests me and is the component of “performance”.  The children almost look like playing dress up, and the school is a big theatre. Under the unity which is heightened by the uniforms, a theatre like drama is unveiled.
People are constantly performing, using masks, outfits, locations, which is intensified when children are performing. I think kids grow up very fast these days, taking up adult roles and behaviors without realizing it. Especially youth in uniform, is expected to perform a certain role society has created, usually a role that is designed for a more mature age.

Michal Chelbin – Sasha Sentenced for Murder, Juvenile Prison for Boys, Ukraine 2010

Do you stage your photographs, and if yes to what extend? How do you guide your models? Are there any specific conditions you are seeking for, when photo shooting? Do you intervene somehow in the scenery?
When I work on a photograph, either I have an image in my head which I go and create or it is an idea that I get from a subject, a location or just on set. It is all staged and what I do is to combine elements that interest me.
One element which is very important to me is the casting.

Michal Chelbin – Aleira and friends, Ukraine 2015

What do you want to communicate to the audience with your photographs? What does an image mean to you and how do you want people to look at your work?
I want the works to be accessible to everyone, not exclusively to people with an art background

Michal Chelbin – Lila and David – Lila Sentenced for Theft Prison for Women with Children, Ukraine 2010

Your third monograph ‘Sailboats and Swans” that was presented in the greek audience, as part of Athens Photo Festival on 2013, is actually a six years’ work in seven different prisons in Russia and Ukraine, where you take pictures of sentenced prisoners from the juvenal to adult age. What is absolutely remarkable especially in this monograph, is that most portraits and picture backgrounds are not revealing any information about their conviction or the place they are photographed. Instead, especially those of women, are highly aesthetic images, that leave us with a sense of familiarity, romantism and innocence, as if they are paintings, to which audience can easily relate to. How did you manage to change prisons’ context? What was your photographic approach in such sensitive matter?
I was traveling in the Ukraine, I think it was in 2006 shooting the wrestlers series, and we drove by a high brick wall.
There were two men standing next to it and our eyes met – and I can still remember they had this mesmerizing blend of fear and cruelty. I asked the driver what was this place and he said : “it’s a men’s prison” and I immediately responded- I would like to get inside photograph. So he laughed and said- “it’s impossible”. In the book and also in the exhibitions of this series, I don’t put the title of the image next to it. I don’t want the viewers to know right away what is the crime of the subject, so they would look at him as a human being, not just as a prisoner or a murderer. I did not want to be influenced by the knowledge of what he or she did. I was only interested in their gaze and in unfolding a complicated scene for the viewer.

Michal Chelbin – Alona in the bedroom, Ukraine 2006

What are your sentiments and thoughts when going through these photographs in light of the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine?
When the war started, I worked on a project documenting Ukrainian refugees who had fled to Poland. Many were families, siblings or mothers and there children. That was my “In their own words” projects which I shot for the financial times.

Michal Chelbin – Grandfather, Rusiia 2003

Please tell us more about your ongoing exhibition “Daydreamers” in Tel Aviv. What are your next plans? Are you thinking of a new monograph?
“Daydreamers” is a retrospective on my fashion and editorial work. I would like to do another monograph with all my fashion work.

Ms Chelbin, warm thanks for this exceptional Interview. It has been a real pleasure talking to you!

Michal Chelbin’s work has been widely shown in numerous solo and group exhibitions worldwide, in venues such as Andrea Meislin gallery in New York, M+B gallery in LA, The Photographer’s Gallery in London and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art
Her work can be found in many private and public collections, such as: The Metropolitan Museum New York, San Francisco MOMA, LACMA, Getty Museum LA, Jewish Museum New York, Cleveland Museum of Art, Tel Aviv Museum, Kadist Foundation Paris, Sir Elton John collection, and others.
Michal Chelbin is the author of four successful monographs, one published by Aperture, two by Twin Palms Publishers and the last one by Damiani.
She is a regular contributor to the world’s leading magazines, such as: The New York Times magazine, The New Yorker, BusinessWeek, Bloomberg, GQ, The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The Financial Times, Le Monde and others.
instagram: @michal_chelbin

Michal Chelbin