Review: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus by the Sochi Project

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The Sochi Project

The Sochi Winter Olympics are upon us. Depending on where you’re coming from, there are all kinds of problems with these Olympics, such as (in random order) unfinished facilities that inconvenience journalists, a massive amount of corruption leading up to the Olympics, the general political climate in Russia, or the fact that Sochi is a short car ride from the tinderbox known as the Caucasus. In reality, these problems are all interrelated. Their individual relevance might vary. The fact that your tap water in Sochi is yellow might have something to do with corruption (if people in West Virginia can’t drink their water for days, what does that tell us?). And Putin’s rise to fame and glory is tied to some, but not all, of the various wars that have erupted near Sochi over the past decades (enjoy this gallery of his athletic achievements if you haven’t seen it already).

But it’s not unlikely that any of these topics might be part of the news while the Games are ongoing, and it is likely they will be quickly forgotten afterwards. Or at least that would be the case if photographer Rob Hornstra and writer Arnold van Bruggen (The Sochi Project) had not spent the past few years in the region, documenting many of its often bewildering aspects. Regular visitors of this site will be familiar with this work – in the book review archives, for example, most of the various Sochi Project publications can be found.

What if you’re not so familiar with The Sochi Project? What if you are looking for a broader overview of the work? In that case, An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus might appeal to you. In a nutshell, the book provides a full overview of years of work, touching upon each of the individual aspects of the project that previously were covered in much more detail in book form.

If you already own each of these earlier books, the book is unlikely to provide you with a lot of new insight, other than making it obvious how things tie together (there also is a “making of” section, with a lot of previously unseen footage and text around the duo’s travels in the Caucasus). If you’re unfamiliar with The Sochi Project, here’s your chance to see what they have been doing, to see why holding the Winter Olympics in a place like Sochi is such a tremendously bad idea.

Just like any of the previous Sochi Project publications, An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus combines photography with writing and very smart design to create an attractive package. The material is not always easy to digest (after all these years, I still can’t distinguish between all the different ethnic groups, even though I’ve read all the earlier books). The book doesn’t shy away from diving into what is complicated, and the design truly helps enhancing the material (this includes the treatment of the type, the paper choices, etc.). It follows The Sochi Project’s well known paths, using the same design team, a very smart choice. Thankfully, Aperture, a rather conservative publisher with a tendency to produce mostly very safe books, shied away from interfering.

As an object, An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus finds itself in an unusual spot. With its lavish production and relatively high price point, the book’s audience will include those who have enough disposable income available. What this will do for the book is hard to predict. The retail price is entirely appropriate, given the size and production value. But it is still $80 (the Amazon price is lower, of course), and that puts the book more into a territory that is beyond what people might want to (or can) spend on a photobook. In other words, less might have been a bit more.

But then again, the book is such a wonderful object, containing content that will remain relevant for many years. If anything, An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus demonstrates what the medium photobook is capable of, when it is used by people like Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen: An in-depth exploration of something large parts of the media have started to discover only maybe four weeks ago. Documentary storytelling using photographs and text is very much alive and well; and even a topic as complex as the Caucasus – tied in with the larger history of Tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union, and now Russia – can be given the attention it deserves without relying on oversimplifications.

In many ways, An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus is The Sochi Project’s crowning achievement (even though if my house caught on fire I’d save The Secret History of Khava Gaisanova first); and it deserves to be seen – and admired – widely.

Highly recommended.

An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus; photography by Rob Hornstra; writing by Arnold van Bruggen; 412 pages; Aperture; 2013

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 4, Edit 4, Production 5 – Overall 4.3

Ratings explained here.