This eerie, theatrical portrait series was selected as a finalist in the Magnum Photography Awards 2016. Discover more inspiring work from all 44 of the winners, finalists, jurors’ picks and student spotlight award winners.

Selected as a finalist for the Magnum Photography Awards, Michal Chelbin’s latest project offers a portal into the disorientating, almost fictitious world of a Ukrainian military boarding school. Shot last year, these intimate portraits of young children posing as uniformed adults are both striking and disturbing.

Russia and Ukraine are where Chelbin tends to shoot most of her personal work. Both are intriguing backdrops for her photography, especially considering the recent unrest resulting from Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Despite the context, Chelbin stresses that her work is more mythological than political, focussing instead on universal issues such as the complexities of youth and obedience. Always seeking contrast in her work, Chelbin is drawn to the combination of tradition and modernism, of conformity and individuality that can be found in these ex-Soviet landscapes.

It can be tempting for the viewer to draw totalitarian parallels. The pupils live in the institution together, learn together, play together, eat together—with little opportunity for the children to gain external perspectives, it feels a bit like psychological conditioning from a young age. Even though Chelbin encourages this slippery thought process with disturbing scenes (such as a particularly sinister shot of a child wearing a gas mask and full protective clothing), she commented on how, in reality, there was nothing particularly abnormal or menacing about the school. Largely, the kids were no different from teenagers everywhere—complaining about school just because it’s school, and how the staff were warm and attentive.

Still, these are not normal schools. They have served differing functions over time in addition to the standard academic ones. In the past, they used to be more like asylums for troubled youth and today they are considered respectable schools for children from middle class families. “But the interesting thing is,” Chelbin reveals, “that the military schools’ aim is to restore tradition by creating a new elite or a military ruling social class, as in the Tsars’ era.” This notion of programming children to assume a military role recalls the prophetic writing of Aldous Huxley and brings it brazenly into the present. While such thoughts seemed as far-fetched and fictitious in ’30s as they do again today, Chelbin shows us a disconcerting reality. This is where her fascination with paradox cuts in—education used to disguise another purpose; a process that is both hyper-modern, almost futuristic and simultaneously quite backwards, nucleating around traditional objectives.

But what’s most striking is the absurdity of the concept; it looks as though the children are playing dress-up. Chelbin’s staged portraits present the school in a theatrical light, allowing (or even encouraging) the viewer to observe in awe.

This theatricality is particularly enhanced by her use of uniforms. Giving the appearance of equality, validation and cohesion, Chelbin challenges these associations by shining the light on the incongruity and presenting it as a clear performance.

Attire aside, a particularly absorbing element to Chelbin’s work is her ability to capture a subtle expression that evokes more questions than it provides answers. Although many of her subjects radiate an element of vulnerability, clearly dressing themselves as characters they don’t fully understand, Chelbin’s not looking to expose the school’s aberration via disenchanted glimmers in the eyes of the jaded pupils. Sometimes the transparency of a performance speaks much louder. An array of subtle acts can be found in the photographs, whether it’s an assertive look from a young nurse who perhaps imitates the defensive traits of her mother, or a deadpan expression from a young officer who emulates the composed exterior of his educators.

“I think performance is a key word in our world. People are constantly performing, using masks, outfits, locations, which becomes heightened when children are performing…I think kids grow up very fast these days, taking up adult roles and behaviours without realizing it.”

On being questioned what draws her to repetitively document the corruption of childhood, she answered, “I tell myself all the time I have to stop shooting adolescents and children, and yet I keep doing it…I guess it’s still something that’s intriguing and unsolved to me.” Always gravitating back towards this grey area, perhaps she hasn’t reached a conclusion yet, but her eye-opening photographs offer deep insight into this rich topic.

—Francesca Cronan

Francesca Cronan is a contributing writer for LensCulture as well as Vice UK. More of her work can be found on her website and on Twitter.