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Prisoner

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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

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Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters

A relative of inmates from the El Rodeo prison throws a tear gas canister during a riot near the prison in Guatire, outside Caracas, June 18. Thousands of troops stormed a Venezuelan prison on Friday to regain control after riots rocked the overcrowded prison.

Fernando Llano / AP

Family members of inmates take cover from tear gas fired by national guardsmen after the relatives tried to block the exit to El Rodeo I prison in Guatire, Venezuela, Saturday June 18. Relatives blocked the exit Saturday demanding news of their imprisoned family members. Thousands of National Guard troops stormed the Venezuelan prison Friday seeking to disarm inmates days after a bloody riot, setting off gunfights with resisting inmates that left at least two soldiers dead and more than 18 wounded.

Read more here about the El Rodeo I prison, and be sure to check out this piece The New York Times ran a couple of weeks ago that details the scene at another Venezuelan prison about which Fernando Acosta, 58, a Mexican pilot jailed since 2007 says, “The Venezuelan prisoners here run the show, and that makes life inside a bit easier for us all.”

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At first the inmates were too busy getting their asses kicked to notice me. They were experiencing the first day of the Colorado Corrections Alternative Program boot camp, a program aimed at reducing recidivism using military-style structure and discipline. Some of them quit on the first day. The rest struggled and adapted. I drove to Buena Vista once or twice a week when I had time, photographing their progress through the three-month program in late 2008.

It was one of the only programs of its kind. First-time offenders with nonviolent crimes were eligible.  The rewards were substantial if you finished. You had a chance see your wife or your baby sooner. You could get on with your life. Along the way you could earn a G.E.D.

The thing was, it didn’t work. The program closed in June 2010 as the state cut prison funding. A troubling statistic was the nail in the coffin: nearly the same percentage of inmates from the program were returning to prison as those who had not completed it. Graduates weren’t any more likely to stay out.

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