Sochi is a city on Russia’s Black Sea coast that attracts mainly Russian tourists in the summer. On the one hand, they come looking for modern glamour; on the other, they attach great importance to Russian traditions. Restaurants try to attract customers with flashing neon signs and semi-luxurious interiors. At the same time, every restaurant upholds a well-known Russian tradition of live musicians who belt out Russian chansons from behind an electric piano.
In 2011 Dutch photographer Rob Hornstra travelled with the writer and filmmaker Arnold van Bruggen to more than 60 restaurants over 100 miles of coastline to work on the project that culminated in the book “Sochi Singers”. This project explores how a deeply rooted Russian tradition goes hand in hand with the city’s new capitalist glamour.
‘Sochi Singers’ is a chapter of ‘The Sochi Project’, which was made with the writer and filmmaker Arnold van Bruggen to tell the story of Sochi, a city in Russia where the Winter Olympic Games were made in 2014. Could you please introduce ‘The Sochi Project’?
Sure. Arnold and I were surprised when the International Olympic Committee announced it was organising the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, a city on Russia’s Black Sea coast, barely a stone’s throw from the conflict zones of the Caucasus. We were already familiar with the Caucasus, having both previously travelled through it, and believed it deserved our closer attention. Our goal was to inform a broad audience about the tumultuous region where the Olympics were to be held. Predictably, the Russian authorities used the games as a propaganda tool. We wanted our project to act as a realistic counterpart to the official facade for people interested in more than just a sporting event.
The Sochi Project is considered the first crowdfunding initiative for art and photojournalism in Europe. In 2009, we launched the crowdfunding campaign Save Slow Journalism!, in which we asked donors to make an annual contribution to the project. Each year, more than 300 private individuals donated more than 25,000 euros. In return, we produced self-published publications like Sochi Singers, exclusive prints, posters and more.
What called your attention to work on a project like ‘Sochi Singers’?
Two years after the start of our project we had visited the city of Sochi several times. In the evening hours we visited restaurants, of course to eat, but also to talk and make plans for the next day. That is possible almost everywhere, except for Sochi. No matter which restaurant we chose, at eight o’clock a singer with a laptop under the arm walked into the restaurant. From that moment on, extremely loud Russian Chanson – take a vodka-soaked ballad and drop in a techno beat, all at full volume – sounded from the speakers.
In a previous publication – titled Sanatorium – we already depicted the old ‘Soviet tourist life’. But we were looking for a way to depict contemporary Russian tourist life in Sochi. Which is in my opinion noisy, involves a lot of golden interiors and jewelry and alcohol. We came to photograph the singers in interiors with faux Greek, French, Roman, Slavic and American décor. It became the perfect metaphor to depict the modern summer resort Sochi.
Could you tell us about the method of working you follow for this project and which were the difficulties you had when working on it?
Early 2011 I shot my first image of a Sochi Singer. It was Marina Bayer in restaurant Eurasia in Sochi. After returning to the Netherlands and developing films, I showed the image to Arnold and our designers Kummer & Herrman. All of us agreed that the image of this singer within the larger context of the interior where she performed, depicted Sochi better than all images shot before. We decided to take the project serious, traveling to more than 60 restaurants over 100 miles of coastline in the summer of 2011 to make the 37 photos for the book.
Can you tell us how was the work process and the selection of the images for the book?
Not every restaurant was suitable for the project, for example mirrors behind the stage are impossible for my way of working. I use flash allowing the viewer to patiently examine every telling detail of the interiors, including the faux Greek, French, Roman, Slavic and American décor. Some restaurants did not want to cooperate (almost everyone in Russia is suspicious for whatsoever, especially if you are a foreigner). And in some restaurants it was quite hard to make a shot without dancing people in the image. Keep in mind that I was always in the middle of a dark dance floor only illuminated by a few flickering disco lights to find enough distance to the stage. Arnold carried out a heroic job by chasing people out of the frame and keeping the flash umbrella in the right place.
What were your influences while working on this project?
John Hinde’s colour photographs of the late 1960s and early 1970s of Butlin’s holiday camps throughout Great Britain.
Some of the books of ‘The Sochi Project’ have been crowdfunded by private donators. Why did you decide to self-publishing your books?
As you said, not all books were self-published, for example the concluding book of The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus is published by Aperture New York. However, self-publishing gives you a lot of freedom to really design and produce publications without any compromises. We feel that is important. Sochi Singers is a large, exuberant publication with gold typography. I suppose that a publisher would have made the book smaller, making it more suitable for a distribution market.
What did you discover and learn after working on ‘The Sochi Project’?
The Sochi Project was an enlightening endeavour in which we tried to tell our own stories completely independently for five years, especially by building up our own audience. That has proved miraculously successful. By the end, the project was big enough to be picked up by newspapers and magazines, cultural institutes and a publisher like Aperture. Especially around the Winter Olympics in 2014, the project was published worldwide in almost all established media. The exhibition is still travelling and has now been shown in numerous countries in Europe, America, Canada and India. As storytellers we are now even more convinced that you can do everything yourself – being truly independent – if you have a good plan and think about your audience.
Rob Hornstra, born in 1975 in the Netherlands, is a Dutch photographer. He has published several books of solo work, produced documentary series for a variety of international magazines, and taken part in numerous solo and group exhibitions in the Netherlands and abroad. In 2009, Hornstra and writer/filmmaker Arnold van Bruggen started The Sochi Project, culminating in the retrospective book An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus and an exhibition that toured Europe, America, India and Canada. He is the founder and former artistic director of FOTODOK – Space for Documentary Photography. Four times per year he runs a popular live talk show about photo books in his home town Utrecht. He is head of the photography department at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague.
Sochi Singers by Rob Hornstra, 2011.
Follow Rob Hornstra on her website.
Photo courtesy of Rob Hornstra. © Rob Hornstra / The Sochi Project.