Interview with The Sotchi Project

Photographer Rob Hornstra and journalist Arnold van Bruggen have been documenting Sochi and the whole Caucasus region for the past five years. Their website The Sochi Project features the incredible stories they gathered, they just released as well an impressive book called An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus

Was it hard to work as a freelance journalist in the Caucasus? What were the main challenges?

AvB: Yes, it's impossible to work there without accreditation, so it's impossible to work there as a freelancer. We were accredited via a Dutch weekly magazine we work for most of the time. That;s very important. Without this we would have been thrown out of the country after our first arrest. And to be arrested is quite common in this conflict zone, the north caucasus. We've been arrested 4 times, and - after that and all the work we did, were thrown out of Russia - we can't work there anymore. They don't give us a new visa anymore.

As you can't go to Russia, what are you going to do during the opening ceremony ? 

AvB: We'll most probably be in Holland, watching the opening at home, or at some event. We are really curious how the ceremony will be, the director of the ceremony is the director of Russia 1, a TV channel under Kremlin control. It will be a perfect portrayal of how Russia sees itself at the moment. Quite folkloristic, we guess, but the small details will be interesting. This is the celebration of Putin's Russia, reborn Russia after its demise in the 1990's. We'll watch it closely. 

Now that the project is reaching its end, how do you assess the whole project from a professional outlook?

AvB: Hard to say about our own project. I think we have been able to make, with all our books - which function as chapters - and our final presentations in the Atlas, on the website and in the exhibitions, to have made a grand view of this extremely interesting area. I hope we have accomplished that as many people as possible know our stories, and know the other side of these Olympics. that as many people as possible will be made 'accomplished witnesses' by that. These are bizarre Olympics, and right now it's hard for journalists to have the freedom to make the stories we've made over the years. I think Games or events like this trigger many serious questions. Why this amount of money? Why in such an area? how can you say sports and politics are separate from each other when event like this are organised?

What is your definition of slow journalism ?

AvB: We have been called slow journalists, so what we do is to take our time to witness developments in places, characters, regions we visit. Not like most news journalists, who mostly have time and budget to go just a few days to a certain region where something occurred. We work more in an anthropological manner, to collect so many stories and viewpoints until we're quite certain of the final story to tell. We keep coming back to people and places we visit, I think that's quintessential for the way we work and the work we make.

Are you happy with the press attention around the project? Is it necessary to make the project successful?

AvB: Yes, because when you're independent your website or books alone are not enough to tell the story. You need a megaphone so to say, and traditional media is the amplifying effect you need. There are so many great websites and projects around where you'll never hear of. That's a pity. As a maker you should be aware of this, shout around and try to find clever ways to let your stories be heard.

Crowdfunding was a key aspect of financing your project. How do you assess your crowdfunding campaign? Did you expect more people to contribute? 

AvB: Yes, in the beginning our expectations were skyhigh. It was 2008, we only knew the Obama-campaign example, something completely different, but thought thousands of people would be willing to donate at least 10 euros to this project, such a combination of great photography, and extremely interesting subjects such as Abkhazia, North-Caucasus, Modern Russia and Olympics. But, it turned out the opposite: not that much people (around 650 in total) were willing to donate, and not small , but the bigger donations (between 100 and 1500 euros) were crucial to make it. But it has been possible to seduce people to donate over and over again, 5 years in a row, to make ouyr work possible, and we have paid all costs from the donations. Now we need a model in which we can also earn a small salary, that will be the next step. But we're extremeley satisfied. It has been a rollercoaster, these five years, to do this project, work in such an amazing region, make the quite heave stories we made, and have this community of extremely dedicated donators behind us. 

I read that you had a budget target of 300 000 euros for 5 years of work. Could you reach it? Is it possible to make a decent living out of slow journalism? 

AvB: Yes, but not only via crowdfunding, also via book sales and grants. From this project it hasn;t been possible to make a living, though over the years our income from it became better and better. Never sufficient. So we had to combine this work with other work, though as well over the years this project became more and more full time.