When reporters become part of the Sochi story


Dutch photojournalists Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen documented the Olympic multi-billion euro makeover of the Russian city

Selection of five-year enterprise is on view at FotoMuseum

Thousands of reporters are descending on the Russian city of Sochi to cover the Winter Olympics, but Dutch photojournalists Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen arrived earlier than most. They started work on their Olympic story in 2009, arguing that the way to cover the multi-billion euro transformation taking place for the Games was to be there while it was happening.

They also wanted see how far the ripples caused by the Games extended, which meant venturing further into the Caucasus region, from the contested country of Abkhazia, around 40 kilometres from Sochi, through war-torn North Ossetia and Chechnya, to Dagestan on the shores of the Caspian Sea. In all, they made 11 trips to the region over five years.

With so many places to see and people to meet, this form of “slow journalism” produced a vast amount of material. Hornstra and van Bruggen have told their story year-by-year in themed books, newspapers and exhibitions, as well as in a massive report on the whole endeavour.

The relatively modest selection at the FotoMuseum in Antwerp only scratches the surface, yet still provides a fascinating primer on the Olympic city, as well as an insight into this highly engaged form of photojournalism.

In Sochi itself, Hornstra and van Bruggen documented the conditions of migrant workers brought in to transform the city, but also explore the hotels, beaches and sanatoria that have made it a tourist attraction since the Soviet era. Hornstra’s images range from close-up portraits, such as their favourite “floor lady” from one vast hotel, to more documentary photographs of workers, residents and tourists. One prominent series depicts the singers they found performing in practically every restaurant in the resort.

Eclectic in their methods, the pair also shoot architectural studies, from brash new developments to Soviet ruins, and landscapes that open up the region as they move deeper into the Caucasian mountains. There are forensic images of bullet fragments and bloodied clothing, pictures of pictures, videos and photos found on their travels.

The images are striking as art, particularly the portraits, yet each also plays a role in the journalistic narrative. Time and again, this way of working makes the political personal, deepening our appreciation of what it means to live in these often-troubled situations. It is also fascinating to see how often the reporters themselves become part of the story they are telling.

The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus
Until 2 March
Waalsekaai 47, Antwerp

photo: Young Dima submerges his injured leg under sulphite water at the Matsesta spa

photo by Rob Hornstra, Courtesy Flatland Gallery (Amsterdam, Paris)