Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen
The Sochi Project:
An Atlas Of War And Tourism In The Caucasus
At the time of writing this review, the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics are poised to commence. While much of the media in the United States is focused on the homophobic policies of Putin’s Russia, little attention is paid to the two recent suicide bombings in Russia’s Northern Caucasus region, or the astronomical cost of the games themselves, which has cost upwards of $50 billion. Located on the Black Sea, the sub-tropical Russian resort town of Sochi lies in the center of this troubled region. Since 2007, the photographer Rob Hornstra and writer/filmmaker Arnold van Bruggen have worked to document the region in a large-scale project entitled The Sochi Project. Funded through a clever crowdsourcing plan involving subscriptions and donations, Hornstra and van Bruggen have published a series of fascinating photobooks and publications, along with maintaining a dense multimedia website, that look at various aspects of the region from the ongoing conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia to the cabaret singers of Sochi’s famous resorts. The culmination of the project is their new book, The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus, which gathers a selection of their work. It reveals a region rife with ethnic violence where luxury spas sit next to crumbling infrastructure and where the lavish expenditures of Putin threaten to overshadow long simmering discontent and poverty.
Self-described practitioners of “slow journalism,” Hornstra and van Bruggen have spent years exploring the social, cultural, and political aspects of a complex region that has long defied easy analysis. Each of the previous five books, like the brilliant Empty Land, Promised Land, Forbidden Land (2010) and The Secret Life of Khava Gaisanova (2013), has built upon the last and told new aspects of the region. In the most recent book, The Secret Life of Khava Gaisanova, they explore the tragic disappearance of a woman’s husband in 2007. Killed, kidnapped, or simply disappeared, it is a common, yet often unacknowledged and under reported occurrence in the Northern Caucus region, which neighbors Sochi.
Profiling individuals and communities, the book contains chapters on Sochi’s roots as a resort town, the neighboring conflict between Abkhazia and Georgia, and the on-going violence of separatist Muslim minorities. The innovative graphic design of the book gives Hornstra’s photographs and van Bruggen’s writing equal weight. Large graphic quotes counterbalance striking portraits and landscapes, detailed captions give context to each image, and short essays begin each chapter and section. The book also concludes with a detailed travelogue that recounts roadside detentions, interminable train rides, and the hospitality of their subjects. Combining straight photography and classic investigative reporting, the book’s mix of text, ephemera, and photographs, is also an acknowledgement of the limitations of both written and photographic journalism. Both Hornstra’s medium-format color images, often staged and carefully lit with strobes or natural light, and Van Bruggen’s engaging prose would not be enough on their own. Together, they provide an interdisciplinary perspective that is refreshingly contemporary, yet wholly traditional.
For all the Olympic glory conferred on individual athletes, the host city is placed under great scrutiny, and at times, celebrated—assuming all goes well. Years of planning and careful management can be derailed by simple traffic delays or something much worse. The celebratory veneer of the 2014 Olympics belies a complex and troubling history of cultural, political, and social conflict in the region that Putin’s billions and propaganda cannot and should not obscure.
However, as admirable in breadth and scope as The Sochi Project is, it often lacks the depth of the authors’ previous books. Whole books are reduced to chapters. This is understandable, given that the material needed to be fitted into a single, albeit large, volume, but one is left wanting more. Fortunately, all their previous books are free to view on their website. Regardless, The Sochi Project is admirable in its sustained and compassionate engagement. It should be required reading for all those willing and curious to look beyond the pomp and circumstance of the Olympics and learn more about a complex and fascinating region.
ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer.