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The Sochi Project Books

cover of Life Here is Serious
The Sochi Project is of a rare breed of journalism. With astounding foresight and depth of interest, photographer Rob Hornstra and writer/filmmaker Arnold van Bruggen have spent three years documenting the city and surrounding region of Sochi, Russia, the location of the 2014 Olympics. Identifying the contrasting economic nature of the region with the splendor of the Olympic games, Hornstra and van Bruggen have dedicated themselves to a 5 year documentation of the area, capturing the colossal transformation it is undergoing in preparation for the massive global event, changing the region, as Hornstra and van Bruggen say, "beyond recognition."

Hornstra and van Bruggen's venture in slow journalism has yielding numerous publications so far. Sanatorium (2009) and Empty Land, Promised Land, Forbidden Land (a Best Book of 2010), are both sold out, but copies of the 2011 publications, Sochi Singers and Safety First, are still available. Sochi Singers is a lavishly over-size paperback documenting the quirky Russian custom of live singing entertainment at dinner establishments. Interspersed with scene-setting images of Sochi's surrounding beaches and boardwalk, the photographs of the singers are at times strange and funny, their environments often looking more like community center karaoke than something for professional vocalists. Still, they stand earnestly among the speakers, cables and synthesizers, serenading an unseen crowd.

from Sochi Singers
Safety First features a series of images taken in the Chechen capital of Grozny, a part of the world now known for its long-standing conflict with Russia and horrific terrorist activities. The images in this volume are not so clearly cohesive in subject matter, but presented like segments of a contact sheet, one notices that the images are marred by strange pink waves. In an attempt to make the population feel safer, Grozny has installed metal detectors at the entrances of many buildings and public spaces, metal detectors that Hornstra's camera had to pass through on multiple occasions. As a result, a portion of the rolls of film he shot during this trip were corrupted, their surfaces bearing a physical emblem of Grozny's grasps at security. The images themselves show graveyards and a skating rink, families in rundown apartments and an aged veteran, chest covered with metals. All the while those pink lines cross the photographs, reminders of the chaos implicit in calling this city your home.

from Safety First
The latest publication, Life Here is Serious, is a slim small hardcover volume of photographs of young wrestlers in Makhachkala, a city across the Caucasus Mountains from Sochi on the Caspian Sea. The Caucasus Region has never been a stranger to conflict, but the years following the end of the Soviet Union have been marked by steady violence, which sets a timeline for this book. Images of boys in red and blue wrestling uniforms are paired with black pages with white text, the date of the featured boy's birth corresponding to the grisly event described on the adjacent page, putting what might otherwise read as a news headline in personal context. It is a simple yet effective technique, and when combined with text describing Hornstra and van Bruggen's interactions with wrestling coaches, men who were hesitant to discuss the violence of the region but opened up considerably on the topic of wrestling, the aptness of using wrestling as a lens through which to explore this area becomes very clear: "Above all, wrestling as a tactical, brutal sport rich in traditions is a metaphor for the North Caucasus itself: a hospitable but violent region."

from Life Here is Serious
Much is communicated through the faces and postures of these boys. While there is an immediate parallel between Life Here is Serious and Michal Chelbin's The Black Eye, Hornstra's straightforward photographs could not be confused with Chelbin's images. Where careful timing to photograph exhaustion and natural chiaroscuro lighting made Chelbin's youthful subjects appear almost other-worldly, Hornstra's wrestlers are fixed in the here and now. As the title states, life here is serious, and the children and young men in these photographs seem to have an understanding of life well beyond their years. Their frames at times may look fragile, but these boys address the camera with maturity and poise, a suitable toughness.

from Life Here is Serious
All of The Sochi Project books are well designed with innovative touches and each is a wonderful example of text and image co-exisiting within a book in a manner that is mutually enriching, never distracting. Allowing their readers to get to know a region through a series of digestible cultural histories, Hornstra and van Bruggen create a nuanced understanding of the region and its ethos, one that when complete will add up to more than the sum of its parts. It is a project worth following. -- Sarah Bradley

The Sochi Project is always looking for donations to support this massive documentary effort. Find more information on their website.

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