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

BY Jason Foumberg, January 21, 2014

Rob Hornstra, Beach, Adler, Sochi Region, Russia, 2011. Courtesy Flatland Gallery NL/Paris

No amount of rhinestone-encrusted leotards and triple-axel jumps should gloss over the grim realities of war and terrorism in the Caucasus region, ground zero for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. Outside the doors of the most expensive ice-skating rink in the history of the Games—the entire Winter Olympics infrastructure cost in excess of 50 billion dollars, a wasteful amount by any indicator—are poverty, mutilated victims of terrorist bombs, ruins functioning as residences, and religious, sexual, and political persecution.

The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus is perfectly timed to coincide with the Winter Games. Photographer Rob Hornstra and journalist Arnold van Bruggen conducted this massive, multi-year photojournalism project in the Caucasus region to illuminate what day-to-day life is like in the shadow of Vladimir Putin’s ego. The Dutchmen provide many images, often portraits with short narrative captions, that amount to a humanistic campaign. The exhibition was slated to open in Moscow but was subsequently canceled (and possibly censored), but an international tour includes Salzburg, New York, Toronto, Dublin and many other cities. The Chicago presentation at the DePaul Art Museum is on view through March 23.

Rob Hornstra, Dima, Matseta, Sochi Region, Russia, 2009. Courtesy Flatland Gallery, NL/Paris

Each iteration of The Sochi Project is different, because local curators have cherry-picked the “chapters” of the project to display in their galleries. (The full project is available as a thick tome published by Aperture.) The Chicago chapters include a focus on Sochi, site of the Games and what Hornstra and van Bruggen call “the Florida of Russia;” the newly formed country Abkhazia; and the terrorist-ridden North Caucasus region that includes Dagestan (where the brothers responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings lived for a time). Most of the photos on view are presented in color on pages of newsprint that have been pasted to the walls, like newspaper spreads. Ten large color prints are also included. With head-on portraits whose subjects demand attention, the images and accompanying captions are sensitive, sometimes humorous, and always humane. 

It’s easy to be seduced by the superhuman athleticism celebrated by the Games, but it comes at the expense of so much human oppression. The Sochi Project reminds us that the international community can come together over many important topics, least of all athletic competition.