This book is a collection of portraits of inmates who are being held in various prisons located in the Soviet Union, six in the Ukraine, one in Russia. The three kinds of prisons Chelbin photographed for this project were for men, women and boys. As such, this is a photobook that investigates identity within a narrowly defined culture.
Stylistically, the pictorial framing and posing of the subjects remind me of her earlier photobook projects; The Black Eye, her portraits of wrestlers from this same region and her first photobook, a mashup of portraits, Strangely Familiar.
Her subjects take a static pose within the square format, formalistic, as though in a studio, but within an environmental context of where her subjects must now reside. They appear to be very aware of the photographer and her camera, as they are directed to face and gaze into the lens. The portraits are a mix of head and shoulders, half-portraits and full standing portraits. Chelbin’s choice in how to capture the person’s likeness, thus the spirit of the individual in front of her lens, is not a rigid, inflexible and heavily structured formalistic methodology. I sense we are provided a little insight into the individual who stands before her lens, creating a richer and more engaging read.
She focuses only on the prisoners as her subjects, not introducing the guards or “management” of these prisons. She maintains a tighter context, going deep, rather than wide.
Chelbin states in her book interview that she inquired as to the reason for the individual to be in this prison only after the photography sessions had ended. This was her attempt to preclude bringing in a potential bias to the interaction with her subject, even though she knew she was photographing prisoners.
As a book object, this is case bound book with dust jacket, wonderfully printed and bound in a nice enough size to appreciate the photographs within, while the book is still manageable to hold. Michal Chelbin and Oded Plotnizki interviewed by A. M. Homes, as well as a short essay by A. M. Homes.
Other Michal Chelbin photobooks that have featured: The Black Eye