For her third monograph, Michal Chelbin (b. 1974, Israel) photographed prisoners in their sometimes remarkable surroundings. From 2008 to 2010 she and her husband visited six prisons in the Ukraine and one in Russia, resulting in Sailboats and Swans, an impressive book with portraits of exhausted-looking people against the unexpectedly colourful backgrounds of their prisons.
The book doesn't focus on cliché prison-like photos – though, there is a photograph of a canteen with metal bowls of brown-grey soup and big humps of bread. And, while in many photos people are wearing dark blue uniforms with nametags, this kind of uniformity is not ubiquitous. Instead, something else is much more notable: the bright colours of the prisons' wallpapers with patterns of flowers, animals, fruit, mountains and even old Greek temples. “We've been to seven prisons", Chelbin's husband says in an interview by writer A.M. Homes in the back of the book, “and if they didn't have sailboats they would have flower wallpaper".
It isn't surprising that Chelbin, a photographer of circus artists and other performers, includes exactly these colourful and theatrical aspects in her photographs. The variety of wallpaper is impressive: dolphins doing little dances in the water, temples overlooking water, lakes surrounded by mountains, rainbows in the sky and roses climbing up a pillar. These are the figures of dreams. But once pasted onto the prison walls, on display every day, they aren't 'real' dreams anymore, but simulations of dreams, drained of desire. Just like the circus artists in Chelbin's earlier series Strangely Familiar, the prisoners in Sailboats and Swans look into Chelbin's lens, almost accusing the viewer of the discrepancy between the dreamlike surrounding they're in and the reality of their lives.
Yet, Chelbin's approach to both the book and the photographs prevents pigeonholing the prisoners too much into the preconceived notions of our expectations. The book's large size (30 x 33 cm) places the viewer physically close to the prisoners. By choosing not to ask the prisoners about their crimes until after she took their portrait, Chelbin does not let her images assert an identity of the subjects linked to their (presumed) past actions. The photos are also shown without accompanying text, though it is possible to see the crimes for which the people are imprisoned in the back of the book. If you're curious and decide to take a look, you might find that the man with clear blue eyes and delicate features was sentenced for murder, and that the girl with the beautiful round face and quiet eyes was sentenced for organising a rape.
Furthermore, the images really work because they avoid portraying the prisoners as a homogenous group. The people in the photos are both old and young, some have babies on their arms. We may not want to know what the crimes of these people were, yet perhaps our guilt in viewing them forces us also to be curious, simultaneously relieved that these people are only ink and paper and not present in the flesh. The exuberant colours make this guilt worse, they highlight it.
In one of the photos Chelbin captured two girls, young teenagers in blue dresses with flower print. They're grabbing each other's arms. They're frowning and they are turned towards each other a little bit, ready at any moment to escape into each other's embrace. If you look behind them, everything seems well. Sunshine, flowers, mountains, sailboats and swans. It is tempting to leaf through to the back of the book to read what these girls were sentenced for. Your decision.
Sailboats and Swans is available for sale from Twin Palms Publishers.