About The Sochi Project, by Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen, in progress since 2009
The Sochi Project is one of the most notorious, successful and omnipresent photographic initiatives in the past couple of years that connect classic photojournalism and conceptual photography, journalism and storytelling. In a way this is due to a highly innovative approach of their creators, photographer Rob Hornstra and journalist Arnold van Bruggen who have created a press of their own. However, their hybrid method of close collaboration between image maker and writer is not new but rather reinvented. It used to be called photojournalism and/or investigative journalism, the genres that nowadays seems to be long gone from the universe of the mainstream media. The tandem did not reinvent the genre but rather found a new strategy to do the piece of big proportions. They used crowdfunding, public funding and revenues from the project.
The first question that comes up is about the future of investigative journalism. How many stories can be revealed if one has to go through time consuming process of communal fundraising? And how much success would the guys have if they decided to fundraise for a photo-story on much more touchy and politically incorrect subject such as current Euro-American socio-political challenges? We don’t know that because they haven’t done it yet. But maybe they will. The theme they focused on instead, the Sochi Olympics and the reality of this troubled area, is nevertheless very relevant but at the same time quite convenient in the part of the world where they live and work – the EU.
The synergy of both creators is very fruitful. Hornstra is a multi-tasking photographer who was joined by professional storyteller van Bruggen and collectively they managed to create a magnificent work. They produced documentary features on two significant levels: they created a in-depth piece of visual-textual storytelling as well as they made distribution widely accessible to everybody in a form of newspapers that could be used as posters with which one can set up a simple exhibition.
The project is a work in progress that has taken place since 2009 (probably in the production until 2014). It focuses on a very peculiar principle of first-hand reporting from the field which is however not at all sensationalist but is more about composing the puzzles in a complex past and present of Caucasus region and especially the Russian patch of Black Sea coast. It is a model for so called slow journalism. With the visual-textual stories they aimed to show this region the way it really is, away from the glamour of the recent winter Olympics. They have proven that Sochi and its surrounding areas are pretty impoverished and godforsaken places which are apparently not very high on the priority list of the government in Moscow. And without doubts some amazing pieces of historiography, from the bottom to the top, were created. Their starting point has always been an individual and his/her position within the wider socio-political circumstances. They successfully investigated how ordinary people experience the pressure of historical and political disarray on their own skin. They randomly visited the remote town of Krasny Vostok, drove through Dagestan and Chechnya, visited Beslan, Abkhasia, Georgia and other places that crossed their path. They lived and talked to ordinary people, local farmers, traders, clerks and policemen, and they created an astonishing insight into tough – especially for somebody who is used to the comfort of the West – life of the locals.
And yet again the images are not anything new or special, just a mixture of snapshots and almost staged photographs of people and places, combined with some archival found imagery. The selection of images in the book, the newspaper as well as exhibition is greatly balanced, amorphous and telling. The same goes to the storytelling. It is not innovative per se but it includes some quite interesting personal style of writing, somewhere between documentary prose and a travelogue. What is innovative here is a bold combination of both, image making and storytelling. The Sochi Project became instantly popular, an overnight sensation that won some prestigious awards for journalism back at home, in the Netherlands, and elsewhere in the West. One of the keys of the success is due to their basic principle of open source free distribution that made the project available and accessible to everyone.
The other reason for the success of the project is the convenience of the topic. The winter Olympics in Sochi were largely observed and criticized by the Western media. Several documentaries, TV programmes and articles were dealing with the alleged corruption of Russian president Putin and his officials, with the lack of transparency regarding the investments and rocketing final bill for the winter Olympics. The state of Russia broke all the records and set a new standard for irrational spending which is so characteristic for the countries with booming economies in the era of a new world order. All these facts are undoubtedly true. However, the wastefulness and corruption are very universal, an not at all only local phenomena.
The Olympics have many times over in the past decades been proven as the hotbed of corruption and financial machination, speculation and relocation of public money to private accounts. The conditions of Olympic committee which is in fact a private corporation always work in favour of contractors and sponsors, ie multinational corporations. What ever was said about Sochi could be applied to any Olympics in the past two decades. The bills for the London summer Olympics in 2012 were significantly lower (if it is to believe the official figures) but there were so many similarities. Like in Sochi the Olympic development gave way to gentrification that relocated many low-income inhabitants, brought rigorous safety measures, and opened up number of new business opportunities for corporations. In both places, Sochi and East London, the games were placed amidst extremely poor areas and ordinary people had no say in regard to the immense gentrification.
Russian government is by no doubt repressive, as well as the EU and the US are when the things get serious (remember Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and some other more localised cases of suppression, even of journalists). So if Russia has a problems with transparency than the EU and the US have troubles with efficiency when it comes to take actions after heavy misconducts such as constant and enormous outflow of resources to private accounts of the superrich in tax havens.
The Sochi Project is therefore not untruthful or even biased. Its problem is not on the surface but rather in the surrounding context. The problem is lack of refection and sensibility when dealing with a place which has different historical, political and cultural context. In the textual part of the project one could often sense the traces of superiority that comes from somebody who firmly believes to be living in a model society. But the world is not black and white.
However, the five-year long travelogue on Caucasus covers certain facts on this multi-ethnic and historically complex region. But from the point of view of its authors The Sochi Project would make much more sense if it continues somewhere else, presumably in an environment they know better. By doing that they would prove to the world (and not only to the West) that their initiative in Sochi and neighbouring area is not politically correct incentive which points at the misdoing of the Other but the serious piece investigative textual-visual journalism. The Sochi Olympics are over. It is time to move forward and continue the practice that every journalist would be proud of.