Prom week in Ukraine: Michal Chelbin’s best photo

Prom week in Ukraine: Michal Chelbin’s best photo

TTwo things have always attracted me particularly in my work: teenagers and costumes. I’m interested in the age, around 16 and 17, which is full of transition. During those years there was confusion everywhere: confusion over roles, confusion over gender. There are a lot of changes for people to deal with.

In 2008, I traveled to Ukraine to take pictures of children during prom week which marks the end of their school years. They are very young, but they are entering a stage in their life where they are expected to act like adults. The ball is an example. They don’t always feel comfortable in the clothes they wear.

I liked the prom photos but at first I didn’t do anything with them – they sat in a drawer for years. But when I started working on a book about costumes and uniforms, filming intern matadors in Spain, and military boarding schools in Ukraine, I decided to come back to shoot more balls. I realize they shared a similar theme.

I met Katya while photographing groups of children at her school in the suburbs of Kiev in 2019. She was 17 years old and was very keen to have her photograph taken. While looking around the school for places to take a solo photo, I came across the nurse’s desk. I took Katya there and the nurse was at her desk taking notes. I didn’t want to disturb her work but she was so focused on what she was doing that it didn’t matter. I asked Katya to sit in the room and the nurse continued to do her thing. I really liked the setup, it reminded me of Vermeer’s painting, Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid. We took a few more photos together but this is the one I liked the most. If there is any uncertainty or trepidation in Katya’s expression, I don’t think it has to do with the nurse or being in front of the camera – that’s how old she is. .

This image is a mixture of documentary and staged photography. Visually, I’m always on the lookout for those times when things get mixed up. There is the contrast between the old and the young, the fact that someone is wearing their best dress and a belt while the nurse is wearing a very simple dress. One looks directly at the camera and the other ignores it. Katya is dressed as a woman but she is still a girl. I feel there is something very authentic about it.

I always shoot on film – I never use digital. I also don’t use artificial light. I am drawn to paintings full of natural light, especially Baroque and Renaissance paintings where the light usually comes from the windows. My sets are always very quiet and easy. I don’t bring a lot of material – just a Hasselblad on a tripod – as it can help me gain the trust of my subjects. It also helps me to be more spontaneous and intimate. I think that’s why the nurse was able to keep doing what she’s doing and didn’t feel the need to leave while we were shooting. It is important not to intimidate subjects and to make things as natural as possible.

Ukraine fascinates me – the aesthetics and interiors of this Eastern European country are a real mix of old and new. In many of the schools I have visited, gender roles are well defined: girls learn to be “girls” and dress in pink, and men have more masculine roles to take on.

Most of the clothes my subjects wear were given to them by their parents. They are often oversized and can look like children wearing adult clothes. I think there is something sad about the expectations placed on people at this age. This is especially the case in places that have strict rules on boys who must behave like men, even though they can be very fragile. We are all human beings full of contradictions and this age is very extreme. What I hope is that even if someone has to wear costumes or uniforms and play a role that they don’t trust, they will eventually end up.


Née: Israel, 1974.
Qualified: Master in photography at the WIZO Haifa Academy of Art and Design.
Influences: Vermeer, Le Caravaggio, Velasquez, Diane Arbus, August Sander.
High point: “My first monograph published by Aperture in 2008.”
Low point: “Develop rolls after a shoot and find that nothing is there!
Superior council: “Follow your intuition. “

How to Dance the Waltz is now available.


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