The photobook world often generates terrible bandwagon jumping, with the pressure to buy or review a new book as soon as possible after it comes out or else risk being left behind in the proverbial dust. Contrary to that impulse I sometimes like to stand still and let the dust settle around me, to take my time before I encounter a book for the first time and approach it perhaps with a little more distance as a result. With this in mind and knowing I was planning to write a few pieces about Russia and Ukraine, now seemed like a good time to pick up The Sochi Project’s epic An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus.
Of course Sochi is not Ukraine, but given that the backdrop to An Atlas of War and Tourism is the military and political instability in the region, and the broader history and legacy of the Russian empire it seemed like a project that might shed a little light on events that have happened since the book’s publication in late 2013, before the Sochi Winter Olympics had taken place. It’s also worth remembering that the subsequent games were enormously overshadowed by events in Kyiv’s Independence Square, and by the apparent Russian invasion of Crimea which occurred a matter of days after the closing ceremony, and lies only a few hundred miles along the Black Sea coast from the Olympic venues.
For anyone who doesn’t know (and you should, since in my view it’s one of the more important documentary collaborations of recent years) The Sochi Project consists of documentary photographer Rob Hornstra and writer/film maker Arnold van Bruggen. Since 2007 they have been traveling regularly to Sochi and the surrounding areas, recording stories peripheral to the games and which differ enormously from the official narratives of a successful, reinvented Russia. Instead these individual accounts reveal a part of the country riven by uncertainty, violence, corruption, and still burdened by (and yet in many ways dependent on) the leavings of the Soviet era. The Sochi Olympics become in effect the Potempkin village of a new Tsar, something intended to draw attention away from these problems, a vanity project to be completed at almost any cost.
Hornstra and van Bruggen have produced a succession of publications based on these stories alongside an excellent website, and An Atlas of War and Tourism is in effect a compendium that brings together many of these stories into a vast, beautiful and intelligent work of documentary work. An Atlas of War and Tourism opens with a map overview of the region, before focusing in on Sochi itself. Hornstra’s photographs capture the city’s unique character, from the crumbling Soviet sanatoria like the Metallurg (built for Soviet steel workers) and their ageing homo sovieticus guests, to the cavernous hotels like the Zhemchuzhina and the strange characters that call the city home, if only for a few weeks of each year.
Expanding the focus the book takes in the neighbouring region of Abkhazia, a break away from nearby Georgia and explores the legacy of the war between the two territories and the lingering violence and tension. Finally the book roams even wider, into South Ossestia, Dagestan, Chechyna, Ingushetia, regions against riven by instability, conflict and corruption. Territories haunted by militant groups and shadowy security forces who abduct, torture and kill with apparent impunity. Each encounter reveals new narratives, and new insights into this complex part of the world. As Van Bruggen notes in one of his accompanying texts, this is a region ‘where every front door hides another story.’ Gradually Sochi re-emerges in the narrative, at first juxtaposed against these shocking stories from the wider region, before Dagesta, Abkhazia and the others dissolve away and we finally return fully to the incomplete construction sites of the Olympic city itself.
Beyond a complex narrative about Russia and the region, An Atlas of War and Tourism is also just a great case study of slow journalism and documentary done very well. It demonstrates the enormous value of collaboration and shows how effectively photographs and text can accompany each other (something most photographers still have real difficulty accepting). At a time when more and more documentary photographers are shifting their practice towards an art footing, and often producing work which many audiences find rather mute as a result, there is something enormously reassuring about a work like this which is unashamedly journalistic, wide roaming, and rooted in the real world.