The Winter Olympics in Sochi haven't been without controversy. Whether it's about the outcry surrounding Russia's horrifying anti-gay laws or the frightening environmental impact of the Olympic development, people from around the world have voiced legitimate concerns about the Sochi games.
But what of the people of the region? Photographer Rob Hornstra and writer/filmmaker Arnold Van Bruggen spent five years in and around Sochi to learn how people from the Russian resort town and the nearby areas really felt about the games—and to paint a much more realistic picture of what life is like in that part of the world than we're likely to get from the sanitized view that'll end up in our living rooms during the Olympics broadcast.
The pair just published a book called The Sochi Project: An Atlas Of War and Tourism in the Caucasus, and in addition to the stunning photographs captured by Hornstra, it offers a much broader perspective on the region that for much of the month of February will have the world's attention—albeit for reasons unrelated to what life is normally like there.
Van Bruggen writes in the book that "Never before have the Olympic Games been held in a region that contrasts more strongly with the glamor of the event than Sochi" and Hornstra's photographs make that contrast clear. We see Black Sea beaches butt up against Soviet-era construction projects, and people of the Northern Caucasus—a tense area with many different nationalities, languages, and religions, where the unemployment rate is the highest in Russia—posing proudly with their guns. And yes, there's a word there that's peculiarly dissonant in a discussion of the Winter Olympics—beaches. Sochi is a subtropical area of Russia where no snow falls in the winter.
Getting people to pose for these photos, meanwhile, presented creative challenges for Hornstra—but, he tells us, most of the challenges weren't unique to Sochi and the Caucasus. "It's difficult in the U.S., it's difficult in the Netherlands, and it's difficult in Russia, as well," the photographer explains of introducing the project to its subjects. "Not everybody wants to be photographed, but some people do. We call ourselves 'slow journalists,' which means we take a lot of time to be somewhere and we just start talking to people—and then we explain that we are journalists and that we are writing articles and making a book. And at a certain point, I ask if I can make a portrait. You always have people that say 'No,' but the majority say 'Yes,' because, well, we don't look so suspicious, and we take time to communicate, converse with people. I think it's a matter of trust in the end. Most of the people trust us, I hope."
Talking to Hornstra, it seems clear that "slow journalism" is the only sort of approach that would work when exploring the complexities of the North Caucasus and Sochi—the pair returned to the area twice a year for five years, spending a month in the region each time. By doing so, they were able not only to find more willing subjects, but also to trace the path of the developing Olympics.
"When we arrived the first time, you could hardly see that it was an Olympic city," he explains. "We immediately traveled to the place where they wanted to build the stadiums, after we landed at this Soviet airport. We couldn't believe that they could change this Soviet airport within three or four years to a modern airport, but they did it. Then we went to the place where they wanted to build the stadiums, and we saw only a green field, with a few privately owned small farms around it. There was nothing. Really nothing. The place where they built the stadiums is not a city. It's not a village. It's nothing. It's just a green field. It was very difficult to imagine that within five years, these flashy stadiums would be there."
Of course, they did it—Hornstra describes the stadiums as "fantastic" and "beautiful"—and the book documents the project as it developed. But what's it like to live in Sochi and have these stadiums appear in the Olympic village, which is 15 miles south of the resort town?
"If you ask the residents what has happened, they will tell you that they have the feeling that six or seven spaceships landed out of the air. They dropped into this strange green field and that's it," he says.
Of course, the fact that the stadiums appeared not in Sochi, but in the fields that existed 15 miles south of the city, means that there's a disconnect between the Sochi that really exists and the "Sochi" we're going to spend the month of the Olympics hearing about.
"Within the city of Sochi, you will not see anything about the Olympic games," Hornstra explains. "We asked residents of Sochi what they think about the games, and they said, 'I don't care about it at all. We are a summer tourist resort. We earn our money with summer tourism. I don't care about it because I'm not earning money with it.'" The general antipathy of the residents of Sochi and the Caucasus to the games is something that Hornstra emphasizes repeatedly during our conversation—though there have been some conveniences that people in Sochi might enjoy as an effect of the games. "The infrastructure has drastically changed," he explains. "They have now a very modern airport, where five years ago was a very old Soviet airport. But if you're talking about a big change, or a major makeover of the city—I didn't see it at all. It's just a Russian summer tourist resort, and it will stay a Russian summer tourist resort with a few strange stadiums thirty kilometers south of it."
Whatever the future holds for Sochi and the nearby region, though, is going to have to go undocumented—at least by Hornstra and Van Bruggen. As rich as the creative rewards of their project have been, the pair have been restricted from entering Russia again, for at least the next five years.
"We still don't know why," Hornstra explains of the event that got the pair arrested. "Officially, we don't know. Unoffocially, we of course know that this has to do with our work in the North Caucasus. In our stories, we connect the North Caucasus as a region very closely with the Olympic stadiums, and that's what they don't like. They don't want to show the rest of the world that there are big human rights violations going on right beside the stadiums, that the poorest region of Russia is very close to these stadiums, that the unemployment rate is the highest in Russia."
While it's disappointing that Hornstra and Van Bruggen won't be able to revisit the project during the Olympics proper—or for a post-Olympics follow-up—Hornstra is remarkably zen about being banned from one of the largest countries in the world.
"I don't know what to do in a speed-skating stadium, so I'm not so much interested in being there during the Olympic games," he laughs. "We just wanted to see it. But it wasn't all that serious, and for the work, it doesn't matter. Our documentary is about the region around Sochi, and we finished this. We were just curious what would happen after the games." Hopefully their impressive work encourages other journalists to pick up the torch.
See images from the project in the gallery above.