Words by Meryl Fontek
Photos by Michal Chelbin
“I hated every minute of it,” Michal Chelbin confessed, referring to her time working as a news photographer in Israel. “I couldn’t handle photographing people during their most painful moments: grieving, crying in hospital hallways, or anxiously awaiting a courtroom verdict. Eventually, I was fired for always being late.” Chelbin, who has shot campaigns for Gucci and Dior, and has had work featured in some of the world’s most prestigious publications, among them Vogue Italia, The New Yorker, T Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Time, the Financial Times and GQ. She began photographing when she was 15 years old after joining the photography club in her high school. During her studies at the Wizo Haifa Academy of Design and Education, Chelbin was able to focus on personal projects, something she still spends the majority of her time doing.
From the very start of her photographic work, Chelbin recalls wanting to direct her own subjects and not shoot from the sidelines, in a more documentary style. She was set on creating her own interpretation of a scene, her own image. Beginning with shooting in 35 mm, Chelbin quickly switched to medium format and portraiture.
Chelbin’s visual language lies within a space the artist likes to call “ between the odd and the ordinary” drawn to the undefinable, the spaces in between, the blurring of identities. Chelbin has found that photographing children and young adults encapsulates this metamorphic position. Vacillating between awareness and naivety, adolescents harness an identity riddled with contradictions. Embodying a sense of innocence they sometimes choose to shed, consciously or otherwise. “Children have the ability to turn innocence on and off, a power not many people in society can tap into.”
Through her choice to photograph children, Chelbin aims to highlight the confusing space when both purity and its opposite, whether it be sin, impurity, or immorality exist together. The moments she captures encapsulate a duality that questions societal norms and breaks down the definition of what it means to be a child, to be untainted by time. Today, time and age are moving at a rapid pace and not necessarily in line with each other. Children are growing up faster than ever before and often times are cast into pre-assigned societal roles, whether it be in accordance with a school, an army, a university, or a family unit.
The make-up and wardrobe for the shoot were inspired by Japanese Kabuki theatre. Chelbin didn’t want the series to be overpowered by complete costume, so she ‘broke’ the look by not using complete makeup and outfits. “I preferred to create an image without the traditional makeup and mask. It felt more genuine to what the adolescent models represent,” the photographer shared. “I think every human, regardless of their age, wears masks. Children, however, may be less aware of their presence, especially when they are imposed by larger entities. In this series I tried to address more universal themes related to adolescence and masks, like the complexities and multifaceted layers of intention typical of youth, for example,” Chelbin concludes. Often times, children are considered to be the most genuine, unencumbered by guilt, shame, and societal pressure. Free from doubt, insecurity, an awareness of the gaze of others, children whisper to themselves as they build, giggle as they draw, scream when they’re angry, and cry in public when they’re hurt. Chelbin’s series challenges the consciousness that builds with age. The theory that along with maturation, it is necessary to mute the “child-like” openness, the bravery, the voice that at one point, had only one goal, to be heard.
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