Prison Wall Flowers

Thank you to my fellow classmates, I have officially come to the dark side: I am now using Twitter. Of course, I haven’t gotten it all figured out yet… I think I might have one follower and I’m following something like five other people. Actually, to be completely honest, I’m not sure if they’re even people.

So as I was playing around, slowly crashing my internet and laptop by clicking a bunch of random things, I decided to type in “Russia” in the search box and see what people are saying, or where that would even take me. Turns out, people really are speaking about Russia! The first couple tweets that popped up were about the release of one of the Pussy Riot members from prison:

Moscow appeals court frees 1 member of jailed Russian punk band; upholds prison sentence for other 2 – @A

Russian punk band members to be sent to remote prison: Russian prisons are notorious for squalid conditions and … 

And the next few that caught my attention all linked to the same article:

Sailboats and Swans: The Prisons of Russia and Ukraine – Photographer Michal Chelbin spent three years…

This article is based around the work of a famous Israeli photographer, Michal Chelbin. She’s done various solo shows all over the world including New York and Israel. Chelbin’s art is included in many prestigious public as well as private collections. Her work is described as “absolutely amazing” by andreameislingallery on tumblr, “superb” by Ian Brumptonon twitter, and her last exhibition is a “truly amazing body of work” according to AndreaMeislinGallery on twitter. This particular article, the one mentioned in a few tweets, discusses one of her latest works: “Sailboats and Swans”. This specific exhibition includes Chelbin’s work from 2008-2010 from Russia and Ukraine of… (you’ll never guess)…. PRISONS!

I don’t know about you, but I saw a little pattern there: Russian prisons!

Yeh, I know it might not sound super exciting just yet, but after clicking through a couple more links, I did see some good material for a blog.

Sticking to my previous theme of interior design, I just had to ask myself the obvious question: what does a prison look like?

When I think of a prison (especially a Russian one), I think of dark grey walls, black mold, rusty metal poles, and some other chilling and daunting images. Chelbin decided to challenge this stereotype. One of the first photographs that popped out at me, personally, is the following work of art:

Two inmates sentenced for violence and theft, pose for Chelbin in the Juvenile Prison for Girls, Ukrain 2009

Two inmates sentenced for violence and theft, pose for Chelbin in the Juvenile Prison for Girls, 2009. See more at:

Since when do prisons have flowers? Wallpaper? Artwork?

The next picture portrays the sleeping accommodations of young boys:

A young male prisoner posing for Michal Chelbin in a Russian juvenile prison

Sentenced for murder, Stas lays back on a metal bunk of a Juvenile prison for boys. See more at:

Notice the light blue curtains, wild print blankets, the aqua-colored metal cots along with night-stands and stools. According to Svetlana Bakhmina, a former lawyer that served her prison sentence in a Soviet styled camp south-east of Moscow, her specific prison housed anywhere between 50 and 100 people in something similar to an army-styled barrack which included rows of bunkbeds (just as pictured above). She told BBC that all she got was a night stand and a stool, once again just like the above picture. This type of layout is definitely not what I was expecting from an average prison, but seeing several people describe prison in this way makes me wonder if that is what most prisons are like in Russia.

Back to the photograph above… The flower-patterned wallpaper, is once again hard to miss along with the small crystal chandeliers hanging off the white ceiling. Looking at all those things, I would not have guessed this is a prison.

Interestingly enough, the title of this particular exposition, Sailboats and Swans, refers to the eccentric and rustic murals and wallpaper backgrounds that Chelbin found throughout the prisons (

So what does all this say about prisons? About Russians? What do prisons in general say about Russian popular culture? Well, I’m not exactly sure that I have all the answers. All I know is that these pictures raised more questions for me than answers.  And honestly, I think the answers to those questions might vary from person to person.

To help you form your own answer to the questions above, I do want to point out that not all prisons look like the ones in Chelbin’s photos.

The National Geographic takes their viewers to a totally different extreme of the Russian prison aspect.

Those webisodes are intended to give you another view on Russian prisons. A little harsher look at things behind bars (which Chelbin doesn’t even illustrate in her photographs).

Not only does Michal not show any physical bars of her prisons to her viewers and essentially raises more questions than answers with her artwork, but one of her main goals is to actually make her audience wonder “Who is this person? Why is he dressed like this? What does it mean to be locked? Is it a human act? Is it fair? What do we see when we look at a locked person? Do we punish him with our eyes? Does a killer still look like a killer? Is it human to be weak and murderous at the same time?” (see what else she says at When a guest walks though Michal Chelbin’s exhibition, or a reader flips through her publication, they do not know who these people are, what they’re doing, or why they’re in jail until the very end. At the end, when she provides the identities of the unknown people and crimes, she wants her spectators to “look at [this exhibition] and see themselves… The circumstances of life could have brought anyone to this place” (

I strongly disagree with the last half of her statement. I do not believe that even the most extreme circumstances can bring me to eat another human being (as in the National Geographic video) or even kill someone, or steal. It’s just wrong and against my morals. Having said all that, it is astonishing what Chelbin can reveal to people like me through a simple still photograph.

Take a careful look at the following pictures:

Vania. Sentenced for sexual violence against women. 2010.

Vania, sentenced for sexual violence against women, 2010. See more at:

Man with swastika tattoo in men's prison, 2008

Man in men’s prison, 2008. Did not wish to reveal name or crime. See more at:

Sentenced for theft, Ira is posing for Michal Chelbin at a women's prison, 2009

Sentenced for theft, Ira is posing for Michal Chelbin at a women’s prison, 2009. See more at:

Diana with her daughter Yulia at a prison for women and children, 2009

Diana with her daughter, Yulia, at a prison for women and children, 2009. See more at:

I might not agree with everything Michal says, and in fact I strongly disagree with the last statement I quoted, but her photography forces me to connect and relate to her subjects. Something about the faces and the expressions of these people makes these photos breath-taking and encourages sympathy.

Michal Chelbin has noted that she asked her objects not to smile. When they smiled, according to her, they got a “fake mask”. Her objective was to catch these people as they would be during their day to day lives without any extra “masks” or fake barriers they might be putting up for the camera. In the past, she has told a reporter she “usually [photographs] people outside the mainstream, and [looks] for faces and eyes that express the complexities of life and… a gaze that transcends from the private to the common”.

The portraits she took include a wide range of both males and females. Some of the younger girls, such as the fourth picture from above, have pale and delicate skin while other older women keep their facial characteristics severe with heavy makeup (this is both true in and out of prison). There are boys that look so small and innocent, one would not believe they deserve to be in jail. Their bodies are over worked and, with time, they start looking more and more like zombies. Other older men have scars that speak of years and years of hard living. Tattoos among men are not uncommon. They are meant to represent strength, social status, possible strong religious beliefs, and are deeply symbolical to their owner. Most importantly of all, Russian prison tattoos are a solid proclamation of the wearer’s rank within the complex and unique social imprisonment system.
In all of the portraits here and the ones available online, there is a sense of dignity that is emitted by the prisoners.
Even in rough times and in harsh prison conditions, Russians walk proud and hand-in-hand with their dignity.
To me, all of the photographs have a mythical, legendary, and mysterious aura. It is frustrating how this Israeli photographer brings up more questions with almost no answers, but she also does a fabulous job capturing something not everyone has the honor to be able to observe; I’d say she definitely makes her fans engage in meaningful, deep thinking.
In any case… who knew one of the world’s coldest countries with the toughest prisons puts flowers, wallpaper, and paintings on their walls?