Israel-based photographer Michal Chelbin has spent the past three years travelling around Ukraine, documenting life inside the country’s military boarding schools. The outcome is both fascinating and deeply disturbing. Her pictures are populated by young boys dressed in immaculate regimental uniforms and official military attire and young girls wearing lace-trimmed maids costumes and bridal dresses. The tiny soldiers and miniature brides stare blankly into the camera, seemingly unaware as to why they are being photographed. “The project came about several years back when I did a shoot in a military boarding school in Russia. I was only there for a few hours on my way to another job, but the visit inspired me to pursue the subject. I started this journey in 2015 and have been working on it since then,” Michal tells It’s Nice That.
Her series is undeniably arresting as Michal captures a world that obfuscates the definition of childhood. The children’s shy awkwardness contrasts the solemn professionalism of their military attire, creating a sense of dissonance and discord that permeate the images. They have nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of as they look into the photographer’s lens and subliminally reveal their innocence. Yet, these same kids are portrayed as steeped in the traditional roles and conventions of adult society where men are trained soldiers and women home-carers and devoted wives. Michal’s images are thought-provoking, urging questions about the effects these schools have on the children’s futures.
“I scout for locations with good lighting that will bring out the children’s dispositions and look for settings with colour palettes that match my subjects’ outfits. Sometimes it might just be a small side room that nobody uses,” Michal explains. The artist’s creative intervention is minimal. She merely captures the children in their school uniforms between lessons; there are no dress-up boxes lying around. Her series, nonetheless, feels formal and stylised with clean, simple compositions that reflect the discipline and order inherent in the institutions. The youngsters sit upright, chest forward and shoulders back, obediently holding their heads and oversized hats high.
Michal’s work is a glimpse into a microcosm where children’s daily lives take place in a secluded environment with little opportunity to interact with the outside world. Even though these places appear to operate as educational institutions, they seem to conceal a much darker purpose. “For many years, military schools were asylums for troubled teens. It is only recently that these institutions have shifted their focus back to traditional roles in order to raise a new generation of elite governing officers. The boys are taught to be warriors, while girls are instructed to uphold reputations and become a form of decoration. This shift back to traditional values interests me very much,” Michal explains. The artist has no plans to end her intriguing journey anytime soon, but hopes to shift the focus of her project to the roles adopted by girls in these institutions.