The Sochi Project and the Future of Storytelling

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Over the past few years, I’ve written extensively about The Sochi Project, a multi-year effort by photographer Rob Hornstra and writer Arnold van Bruggen to report on the area around the city chosen for the 2014 Winter Olympics, the Caucasus, easily one of the most volatile and violent regions on this planet. Gearing up for the Olympics, Hornstra and Van Bruggen finished their work, working on the final book, which is due to be released in November 2013 (it might be time to give a shout-out to Jeroen Kummer and Arthur Herrman, who behind the scenes have shaped the visuals of The Sochi Project). In parallel, Russian authorities refused to grant the duo further journalistic visa, a move hardly surprising for those who are familiar with Russia under the autocratic leadership of  Vladimir Putin. There is indeed much to be hidden around the 2014 Winter Olympics (see, for example, this article).

The Sochi Project is often referred to as using slow journalism. Having made countless trips to Sochi and the Caucasus over the course of years, Hornstra and Van Bruggen have assembled material of impressive depth about the region and the many, many problems plaguing it. But there is another aspect of their work that is often overlooked and that deserves a lot more attention: The Sochi Project have embraced a large variety of ways to disseminate and/or present their work. There are the photobooks, many (most?) of them I reviewed on this site. These books themselves separate into the more journalistic ones – heavy on text and background, and the more arty or playful ones, where photographs dominate.

The Secret History of Khava Gaisanova, easily one of the very best photobooks published in 2013 (see my review here), and Sochi Singers (reviewed here) present very different aspects of Sochi and the region around it. They are aimed at somewhat different audiences. There is considerable overlap of those audiences. Yet at the same time, someone more interested in more documentary types of photography might become curious about a more art-focused approach (or vice versa).

In much the same fashion, the photographs are exhibited in different ways. There are the framed glossy prints, sold by a gallery or exhibited in museum shows. But Hornstra and Van Bruggen developed exhibitions of different sizes for museums, allowing for smaller and larger spaces, and smaller and larger budgets. On top of that, there is an exhibition that comes in the form of newsprint that can simply be pasted on walls (plus, there are billboards, see this one, for example).

Some people might find it hard to believe that newsprint pasted on a wall would even be a serious form of showing work. But it is. Prepared properly, the photographs look great (I’ve seen an example). And crucially, this approach to showing the work of a few years opens up a lot of opportunities. Your little town in the middle of (seemingly) nowhere might not have a fancy or even a simple art museum or gallery. But I’m sure there’ll be a wall somewhere, and you don’t need much of  a budget, either (the newsprint posters are available as a set for 35 Euros).

Having approached the end of their project, The Sochi Project have completely revamped their website. The new version tells large parts of the story, using a state-of-the-art multimedia heavy approach: There are large images and small ones, images from the books and outtakes produced with cheap digital cameras, plus vernacular photographs. There are videos, some to click on, others running automatically. There even are links to electronic versions of the publications. And there is text, a lot of text, which presents the various aspects of the project.

There is much talk about the future of (photo)journalism and about how photographs can be used to tell stories. The Sochi Project’s approach (which, btw, also included a crowdfunding component before this became all the rage) might not suit every project in every aspect. But the large variety of approaches used by Hornstra and van Bruggen demonstrates what can be done, and what is to be gained if it’s done well.

Not every part of The Sochi Project might be everybody’s cup of tea. But that’s besides the point. The idea clearly is not to make everybody 100% happy. Instead, the idea is to reach as large a number of people as possible, in other words offering so much that many people will find something that might get them interested.

If it is a photographer’s challenge to present work cohesively and convincingly on the wall, on paper, and on the web, The Sochi Project have clearly demonstrated a landmark way of doing it – and all that embracing, but not pandering to the various technological fads of our times.