Prom week in Ukraine: Michal Chelbin’s best photograph

Two things particularly have always drawn me in my work: teenagers and costumes. I am interested in the age, around 16 en 17, that is full of transition. During those years there is confusion everywhere: confusion about roles, confusion about gender. There are a lot of changes for people to deal with.

In 2008, I travelled to Ukraine to take pictures of kids during the week of their prom that marks the end of their school years. They are very young but they are entering a stage in their lives where they are expected to act like adults. The prom is an example of this. They don’t always feel comfortable in the clothes they’re wearing.

I liked the pictures from the proms but at first I didn’t do anything with them – they went into a drawer for years. But when I started working on a book about costumes and uniforms, shooting trainee matadors in Spain and military boarding schools in Ukraine, I decided to return to shoot more proms. I realise they shared a similar theme.

I met Katya while shooting groups of children at her school in the suburbs around Kyiv in 2019. She was 17 and was very keen to have her photograph taken. Looking around the school for places to do a solo shot I came across the nurse’s office. I took Katya there and the nurse was in there at her desk taking notes. I didn’t want to disturb her work but she was so focused on what she was doing it didn’t matter. I asked Katya to sit in the room and the nurse just kept on doing her thing. I really liked the setup, it reminded me of the Vermeer painting, Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid. We did a few more photographs together but this is the one that I liked the best. If there is some uncertainty or apprehension in Katya’s expression then I don’t think that’s to do with the nurse or being in front of the camera – it’s the age she’s at.

This image is a mix of documentary and staged photography. Visually I’m always looking for these moments where things get mixed. There’s the contrast between old and young, the fact that someone is wearing her best dress and a sash while the nurse is wearing a very simple dress. One is looking directly at the camera and the other ignores it. Katya is dressed as a woman but she’s still a girl. I feel there’s something very authentic about it.

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

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

Most of the clothes my subjects are wearing were given to them by their parents. They’re often oversized and they can look like kids wearing adult clothes. I think there’s something sad about the expectations placed on people at this age. This is especially the case in places which have strict rules on boys needing to 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 somebody has to wear costumes or uniforms and act a role which they are not confident in, they will eventually be able to find themselves.

Born: Israel, 1974.
Trained: Masters in photography at WIZO Haifa Academy of Art and Design.
Influences: Vermeer, Caravaggio, Velasquez, Diane Arbus, August Sander.
High point: “My first monograph published by Aperture in 2008.”
Low point: “Developing rolls after a shoot and finding out nothing is there!”
Top tip: “Follow your intuition.”

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