The Sochi Project: how Putin facilitated a story no editor would sanction


SOCHI PROJECT/ Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen

The Sochi Project: how Putin facilitated a story no editor would sanction


SOCHI PROJECT/ Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen

The Sochi Project: how Putin facilitated a story no editor would sanction


SOCHI PROJECT/ Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen

The Sochi Project: how Putin facilitated a story no editor would sanction


SOCHI PROJECT/ Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen

The Sochi Project: how Putin facilitated a story no editor would sanction


SOCHI PROJECT/ Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen


The Sochi Project: how Putin facilitated a story no editor would sanction

Alisha Sett

What if a writer and a photographer told you they wanted to follow the story of a single region for five years? If the story were important, would you pay them to do it?

This is one of the central questions that photographer Rob Horsnstra and writer Arnold van Bruggen (and their design team at Kummer and Herrman) had to ask themselves when they set out to work on The Sochi Project.

They had been travelling in Georgia and Abkhazia, states frozen in conflicts with each other, hidden from the world in the shadow of the Soviet Union.

Abhkhazia wanted complete independence from Georgia of which it is was once a part and Georgia wanted freedom from Russian influence, under whose thumb it has had to live for decades.

As storytellers, they knew there was little place in the new media market for the face of the common man suffering in obscurity in the Russian borderlands. They were both believers of slow journalism, of following a story all the way through in all the time that it took. No magazine or newspaper would give them that.

Strangely enough, it was President Vladimir Putin who found them their audience.

In 2007, Sochi was selected as the destination for the 2014 Winter Olympics by the International Olympic Committee. This was a ridiculous proposition, something only Putin was capable of imagining.

Sochi is the summer capital of Russia, a balmy beachtown, a Soviet era relic with old sanatoriums built as 'palaces for the proleteriat' by Stalin. Russians travelled great distances to come and unwind in the coastal breeze, so much so that Sochi was mythologised in Russian poetry and music. It was a strange and crumbling paradise.

Now, it would become a destination for 50 billion dollars of investment, becoming the most expensive Olympic event of all time.

How would this change life, not only in Sochi but in Abhkhazia and Georgia and the Northern Caucusus, all of which lay only kilometres away?

Crowdfunded by a dedicated team of supporters, Rob and Arnold provided fascinating answers to this question over the five years they spent travelling across the Sochi region and its neighbouring states. For every year they travelled, they released a book and published stories on their website. By 2013, when their visas were abruptly revoked by Russian authorities, their work was complete.

Today, the Sochi Project has become a 21st century landmark in publishing, in fundraising and in independent, uncompromising, in-depth documentation. With a series of photobooks and global exhibitions, not to mention a World Press Photo Award, it has renewed faith in the fate of journalism.

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Rob Hornstra installs the Sochi project at the Delhi Photo Festival 2015. Photo: Catch News

Bringing comprehensive writing and photography together in a meaningful way is difficult - especially when both are to have equal or comparable weight in the narrative. Often, one is simply illustrative of the other. When I first looked at the Sochi website, this is what I thought had happened again; like in most magazine stories the writer predominated and the photographer provided an aesthetic periphery tangential or optional to the words.

But as the chapters (there are 8 available on the website) unfolded, I realised that each was different. In some, yes, the photos were inconsequential, the stories of the wars themselves were so complex and required such focus to fully grasp that I didn't care about the atmospherics or about seeing the individual whose voice I was reading.

But as I got deeper into the story, the photography became essential. I needed it to relate more intimately with this new universe of characters that I was beginning to understand.

While the project can already be declared more than successful, I now believe it is one whose real value will be realised decades from now. When these conflicts have evolved (or not), when Russia's position in the world may have changed dramatically, when the ongoing conflict in Ukraine reaches some denouement.

I sat down with Rob and Arnold as they finished a long day of teaching at the Delhi Photo Festival - they are helping groom the next generation of Indian photographers while here - to find out what they thought of Russia today and to discuss what the Sochi Project meant to them, two years from its completion:

Alisha Sett: Tell me about the latest book.

Rob Hornstra: The second edition of the book was released in early September. We decided to put a quote from the CEO of Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, from his endspeech that was broadcasted live to all countries of millions of people, on the new edition of the Atlas: "This is the new face of Russia, our Russia."

For the Russians, it was a fantastic "show-off" moment with beautiful, expensive stadiums and our book is always showing the other side. But this is typically the mentality or the populist attitude of Russia - very proud.

AS: Did Russia consider the Olympic games a huge success?

Arnold Van Bruggen: Yes. Completely. That is why we have this triumphant quote on the cover, this is really their victory. It was just one month before they started to meddle in Ukraine. This was their triumphant reappearance on the international scene or so it was thought in 2007 when they started to organise these games.

But of course, in 2014 effort everything changed, they got Crimea, they invaded East Ukraine and the whole face of Russia changed again in the eyes of the world so for us there is a double meaning in this quote - for them it was triumphant, for us it said today you will see the "new face of Russia" as in the real face.

AS: They are also playing a role in Syria now.

RH: There is a lot of power play in the whole attitude of Russia and the Russians themselves seem to like it because it puts them back on the world stage. And it that sense they have the right to at least say that they "matter" in world politics. But how they matter is something we can talk about for a long time.

Our whole project ended before the Olympic games, and it shows this policy of Russia - how they are dealing with conflicts, how they are dealing with people, how they are dealing with human rights. All of these things are in the book.

AS: I think this work will become even more important 50 years from now.

RH: I hope so. Or actually, maybe I don't hope so because it would mean Russia continues to behave a certain way for 50 years.

Two men and a story no-one would fund: how The Sochi Project came to be

AS: I think irrespective of how they behave the project will remain an in-depth view into a sensitive region that very few have access to, which almost no one will ever experience. By the way, India also has a new prime minister who is trying to put us back on the world map. How remains to be seen.

RH: There are many possible comparisons between India and Russia which also makes it very interesting for us to see how this story is received here in Delhi. Will we generate that discussion: that is India also heading in that direction or is India already over this phase?

AS: Is it true that this project began because Arnold called you and said, "Let's go to Abkhazia"? And you had never met before?

AVB: We had met one time for coffee.

AS: And then you decided to head off together? Were you familiar with each other's work already?

RH: No. We had a mutual friend who said that you are doing the same work with the same interest but you're each doing it a different way. Arnold is a writer/filmmaker and you are a photographer, have a coffee with each other, you never know what might come out of it. We had a coffee and then two weeks later Arnold called me and said, "We are going to celebrate Christmas and New Year in Abkhazia. We want to go somewhere and celebrate, but we also want to do something. So join us. Because a photographer isn't joining us." They were two writers planning to go write articles for magazines. So I took a flight.

When I got there Thomas (the other friend) had already been beaten up in a New Year event in Akhazia. So he had a blue eye.

AS: Beaten up in a friendly drunken brawl or beaten up in a "why are you here, we are the police and you are journalists" kind of situation?

AVB: Beaten up in a wild mafia new year's party with all youngsters. Thomas was making a move on one of the girl's dancing. And in the end, they ended up beating him up. I had a very peaceful night...

RH: Later on, they also got robbed. It was quite a legendary trip. And the work we made, in a way it was remarkably good because we were starting with nothing. We had no money to work with fixers or translators. We were just there. Some people could translate a little bit but not much and we still got these very personal stories. How we managed to speak with our arms I dont know but we managed to do it. It was also possible because we were working together. So it took a while before we made the next trip but there was true collaboration between us.

AS: I read an interview with your design team at Hummer and Kremmer where they said that when the winter games were announced was when you came up with the crowdfunding strategy. This model of funding seems to have been key to the number of different publications you have been able to produce. Now, of course, crowdfunding is much more common but at that time it was just taking off, and not even in the world of photography.

Why did you think people would back you? Also given that it is not as if you were a "superstar photographer" or Arnold was a "superstar writer"? Or is Arnold a hidden superstar?

RH: He is. (We are interrupted by a very polite waiter asking us to pay for our beer.)

AVB: Sometimes these developments are up in the air. All around the world there was this idea that journalism is in a crisis, making photography is in a crisis. I actually got my inspiration from

a small blog in San Francisco,, and they were quite advanced in community journalism, very local journalism in which they could really make a difference. Local journalism had already left San Francisco, more or less, and they were filling the gap and doing investigative journalism. In the end, they did a co-production with the New York Times so they became active on a bigger level and that was interesting. It was a new model and it had started to work.

In the same year, Kickstarter was funded. It was not really about journalism then, it was more about music and documentaries. Girls with guitars who would say "I want to make a CD, will you sponsor me?" and then they looked in the lens with big eyes...

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Rob Hornstra installs the Sochi project at the Delhi Photo Festival 2015. Photo: Catch News

AS: Isn't that what you did?

AVB: Well, we actually did try to make a video like that but after three times we realized we weren't convincing enough! So we said, we're going to stick to what we do best - text and photography and design.

RH: Design became our strategy, our replacement for the big eyes of the girls.

AS: And your distribution strategy. Instead of working with a newspaper or magazine, you worked with Kummer and Herrman.

RH: Kummer and Herrman are absolutely amazing designers. It's been fantastic to have this whole team together for five years who only had one big goal. And although we had many conversation and discussions during those five years we always kept in mind that we had one big goal that we had to reach. Kummer and Herrman were absolutely dedicated and you need a team like that to achieve it.

AS: And so were all of these books (we have them laid across the table between us) crowdfunded?

RH: Crowdfunding was a part of it. But it's never been enough to completely fulfill the project. We used the crowdfunding money to make our trips and it wasn't even really enough for this. So then we came home and we made the publications and we tried to raise some extra money from grants - we sometimes succeeded and sometimes not. We sold our publications of course. We made a web shop and many of the publications sold out. When it sold out it generated some extra money. But that's also only one thing we tried.We also made rental exhibitions which we rented out to institutions and that also became profitable at a certain time.

So there is not one single thing, though crowdfunding is a very major important thing in it. There is not one single direction or single stream of money which finally made this happen, we really had to focus on all different streams, some are smaller then others. Our web shop became important, the rental exhibitions became important, applying for grants became important.

AS: Doing everything essentially.

RH: We needed everything. We really needed everything. We didn't earn money in the Sochi Project for ourselves. So it was a sustainable project for itself and to make these (points to the books) things. We are satisfied about that. But it didn't give us money to feed ourselves or pay the rent. So besides doing the Sochi Project we had to extra work to survive.

AS: Explain the difference between the Sketchbook Series and the other publications.

RH: When we didn't get a grant for a publication that we wanted to do - like in the case of the Sochi Singers we had to finance the publication, a very expensive publication, all ourselves - We had to invent something to finance it which is when we started the Sketchbook Series. We sold the separate books for way too much money but also communicated honestly, "Hey, you're paying way too much money but we also need this money now and we need to sell a 100 or 200 copies of this first sketchbook, only then can we make our new book, so please help us once again!". We called it crowdfunding 2.0, a different way for getting the money.

That is the mentality in the Sochi Project - there is always a way to solve your problems but you have to be creative in how you can do that.

It's a seminal work of journalism and photography, and for ten days it's in Delhi. The incredible Sochi Project

AS: Do you feel like you had quite a dedicated community by the second or third year? People who were following what you were doing and getting deeper and deeper with you? A core that knew the Sochi Project inside and out?

RH: Yeah, I think it worked in that way. We started with no public, no audience that knew about us. I remember very well when we did a presentation in 2009. When we talked about what we were planning to do, people in the audience said, "What? Private funding?" We didn't even know that it was called crowdfunding then. They said, "We don't know what this is."

So we explained it to the people attending this photo festival in Holland, what the plans were, and that was really the base in the end for the project- a few donators and a few followers. And we kept building on it for a long time. We had our peak moments along the road so to say but all of it came together in the end - a big publication and exhibition and the website. Finally, around the winter games the community became really big around The Sochi Project.

But for example, winning the World Press Photo award for Sochi Singers was also a big help in getting attention but still inside the photography field. We wanted to a larger audience than that so we've always been focusing on getting our work outside the art and photography community as well.

AS: Tell me a bit more about how the collaboration worked on the ground. You did all your trips together?

RH: Let me give you a good example of why we are convinced of working in this way of doing everything together. When I going with Arnold, he definitely wanted to go into the mountains in Abkhazia to visit the border. And I as a photographer said, "We'll have to rent an expensive vehicle, we'll have to get people to come with us", it was an extremely dangerous area and when we were driving through the mountains, all the way up it was only forests. I asked him - Is it worth to got there? In the end, he convinced me to go there and on the road I shot one of the most famous images of the Sochi Project of two boys on the sofa with Kalashnikovs. This is what happens when you collaborate.

And it works the other way around as well. I had to shoot many many many wrestling schools for this book about young wrestlers which you can find in every village and of course after 5 wrestling schools Arnold knows exactly what is happening in the wrestling school and has all the explanations about all the different ways you can wrestle and he gets bored and doesn't want to go to wrestling schools any more. But I have to go there because I need more wrestlers.

At the 11th wrestling school, we found the most fantastic or the most useful story about a son who is kidnapped by the Secret Service. So this is happening if you work in that way. There is a lot of coincidence which you really miss if you are working alone.

Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen unveil An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus, their landmark exhibition showing the "new face of Russia" at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts as a part of Delhi Photo Festival 2015 today, October 30

Alisha Sett