PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHAL CHELBIN
TEXT BY SELEN ERDOĞAN
Michal Chelbin has a fascination with the animosity that transpires from the interactions children and adolescents have with ceremonial institutions. Born in Israel in 1974, Chelbin’s interest in this conflict goes back to her late teens, during her compulsory military service. Serving the Israeli army was tough, so, perhaps as a coping mechanism, the photographer started taking portraits of conscripts like her at that time. After her discharge, she took it upon herself to photograph the contradictions children are exposed to in other rigid environments.
In her latest project, How to Dance the Waltz (2015-2020), Chelbin compiles three different themes and locations: cadets from a military school in the Dnepropetrovsk region of Ukraine, high school students preparing for their prom in Kiev and boys attending a matador academy in Seville, Spain. The transition from childhood to adulthood is the main focus of this series. She does an amazing job of highlighting the children’s expressions and their costumes, how they blend-in so seamlessly with the new identities they shyly attempt to adopt. Yet, it is easy to feel their insecurity, revealed by the naïveté that peers out from beneath their price and finery. The contrast between the grand costumes and their body language seamlessly conveys the awkwardness of the situation to the audience.
Some of Chelbin’s photographs point to the stark disparity between childhood and adulthood. For instance, the little girls held up by male dancers are so different that you would never imagine them as a dance couple. Their physical closeness alone is enough to make the audience shudder. Looking lifeless, the doll-like girl causes considerable worry that she might fall down from where she stands, on the hands of the stout male dancer, despite his reassuringly sturdy posture. The same ominous feeling is present in another photograph in which a fragile-looking little girl is held in the arms of her father who is standing knee-deep in a lake. In juxtaposing exposed flesh with striking costumes, the artist seeks to create images that are both memorable for their striking contrasts, yet full of pathos. The degree of nudity makes it impossible to disregard the fragility of the children. The sense of anxiety projected in ‘Xenia, Janna and Alona in the woods’ where one of the topless, tutu-wearing girls stands barefoot on the damp forest floor, hugging her friend, can be felt in almost all of Chelbin’s photos.
However, Chelbin’s work is not only about a feeling of unease; she also plays humorous tricks, in a manner redolent of the work of Martin Parr. Her play is staged between the contradictions and oppositions of reality and fiction, natural and artificial. For example, it is impossible to tell at first glance, whether the poodle standing on the cabinet, on the right-hand side of a woman, sitting on an armchair with a dog on her lap is a live one or a stuffed toy. The absurd incongruity between the standing dog and the woman’s kitsch costume and slippers distract us from the sense of unease that dominates Chelbin’s portraits.
Chelbin admits that her photographs bear the influence of 17th-century painters such as Vermeer and Velásquez. This is felt in the posture of the subjects and the set-up of the frames. The details determined by minor and subtle touches such as the position of children’s hands and arms (and the way the toes mingle, as in ‘Nastya’), the pride in their expressions collectively enhance their inanimate appearance. Chelbin’s authenticity appears in the details that do not conform with the overall composition. Striking features, such as the slightly makeshift and hunched posture of the red-haired ‘Nastya’ posing in a chair, contrasting with her elegant face and dress, the way her bare feet dangle – even the curving of her toes is unique to Chelbin.
Chelbin’s photographs were exhibited at Bomontiada, as a guest of the 212 Photography Istanbul event in October 2020. The artist has four books, the first of which was published in 2008 (Strangely Familiar: Acrobats, Athletes and other Traveling Troupes). Chelbin’s work has been exhibited in major museums such as MOMA and the Metropolitan Museum, New York and her latest project has been well-received in artistic circles.