Michal Chelbin’s tender portraits capture teens in uniform

The photographer creates a tension between old school glamour and traditional gender roles in her images of young people wearing uniforms around the world

How to Dance the Waltz is a five-year project that explores the connection between youth, uniforms and dress codes. Photographer Michal Chelbin wanted to unpick the heightened traditional gender roles that come with certain uniforms and the air of performance forced upon them.

The project sees Chelbin travel around the world to places such as military boarding schools in Ukraine, Seville’s matador schools and a school prom night in Kiev. “I work around groups of people who share something in common,” she says of her process. “For example, if it was a military boarding school, I would contact them in advance with a time to come. Once I’m there, I introduce myself and my work, and start to make portraits. Each portrait session is different, sometimes it takes an hour and sometimes up to three hours.”

All images: How to Dance the Waltz by Michal Chelbin, published by Damiani

Getting access to these different institutions was the most difficult part of the project, as well as being able to balance the right subjects with the locations. The fresh-faced teens and children featured are often posed formally in their uniforms, appearing mature and dignified. But within the images are glimmers of their innocence and youth, whether its through their bright-eyed expressions or when their poses shift to something warmer like hugging or hanging off gym equipment. 

For Chelbin, a good image “is about making the viewer ask questions, rather than get answers” and this series sees her create a tension between the old glamour often associated with these intricate uniforms and costumes, and the outdated views attached to them, especially in relation to views of women in society. When a young woman is featured in the series, for instance, her uniform often reflects a submissive role.

“First and foremost it’s about the contrasts. While living a military life or being a young matador are associated with violence and cruelty, when I meet them, I find many of them to be fragile and weak,” explains the photographer. “It is considered a ‘manly’ occupation, but I found many of them to be gentle, even feminine.” 

This tenderness is something Chelbin has come across in previous projects such as The Black Eye, where she photographed young wrestlers, and Sailboats and Swans, which captures teens in juvenile prison. “While we know these people committed crimes or acts of violence and cruelty, they are also weak and vulnerable at the same time,” reflects Chelbin. “This human contrast, the ability to be two so diffirent things at the same time, fascinates me.”

While Chelbin has travelled extensively for How to Dance the Waltz, the beauty in her images comes from the similarities between the teenagers she’s captured. The bubbling adolescent angst and the desire to seem more grown up is delicately captured.

For Chelbin, it’s also about how uniforms can only go so far in masking who we really are. “Even if you make teenagers or people generally wear uniforms and act the same under social codes, their individuality and uniqueness will eventually come to light.”

How to Dance the Waltz by Michal Chelbin and is published by Damiani and out now; michalchelbin.com