In the past, Ukraine’s military boarding schools were seen an asylum for troubled teens. But today, many consider them to be respectable schools, where children of middle-class families can be promised a prosperous future.
Still, these are hardly ordinary schools. Michal Chelbin’s series, which will be exhibited at this years Portrait(s) festival in Vichy, France, accentuates the heightened gender roles that these institutions encourage. Girls in tiaras and out-dated maid attire are photographed alongside boys who wear oversized military uniforms, carrying guns twice their size. Chelbin’s deadpan style of portraiture emphasizes the tension between the children’s innocence and the gravity of the responsibility that these uniforms could one day carry.
Born in Israel, Chelbin has been shooting projects in Ukraine for more than a decade. Her interest in former USSR territories, and youth, was sparked while studying photography at university, when she photographed a ten-year-old girl called Vitalina who had immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union. The project was a trigger to go and photograph in Russia, and after visiting a military boarding school there in 2004, Chelbin decided to continue on this route in Ukraine.
Getting children to engage for a portrait can be tough, says Chelbin, “you need to be gentle and considerate.” But unsurprisingly, in the schools in Ukraine, the children were disciplined. “Even though I had a translator with me, I didn’t need to give a lot of instructions,” says Chelbin.
On top of the tension between childhood and adulthood, there is another tension at play in Chelbin’s images – between performance and reality. The children look as if they are playing dress-up, and pose centre-stage for their portraits. But really, these are not costumes, they are uniforms. Ultimately, what the photographer wanted to highlight was each of the children’s individuality, beyond what they are wearing. “It was bizarre to see such young children in these uniforms, and to see the path that society constructs for them,” says Chelbin.