Rob Hornstra: “Russian Propaganda is One of the Most Dangerous Things in Europe”

“The Sochi Project” author, Rob Hornstra, explained to Bird In Flight why for him long-term projects are more important than news photography.

In 2009 Dutch photographer Rob Hornstra and writer Arnold van Bruggen began working on a project about pre-Olympic Sochi and its surroundings. The exhibition was to take place at Vinzavod in 2013 but Hornstra and van Bruggen were denied Russian visas, and the exhibition was cancelled. Bird In Flight talked to Rob Hornstra about the Sochi Project that made him world-famous. Also, we asked him what he loves and hates about Russia and why it is so important to keep asking questions.

Rob Hornstra, 40 years old

Documentary photographer from the Netherlands. On graduating from Utrecht School of the Arts began working on documentary projects; Russia is one of his areas of focus. His project “Sochi Singers” won World Press Photo in 2012.

I’m Dutch living in the Netherlands, which is the small country so I did most of my projects in the Netherlands of course. But I also realized that my country doesn’t make a real sense in global politics. I was more interested in countries where the big politics are made.

Changes are always fascinating for documentary makers. I was interested in Russia because it made such a quick change from a Soviet country to a large capitalist society.

I chose Russia for my graduation project. I wasn’t interested in Moscow; I wanted to stay a little bit outside the capital. I wanted to see the province where the majority of the population lives. I investigated the Urals and went to the Chelyabinsk region. I found there many interesting things. I wanted to touch on the environmental problem and I found a story about a nuclear disaster that happened during the Soviet times when a large area was polluted in the Chelyabinsk region.

{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/rob01_.jpg”, “text”:”The railway from Sochi to Sukhum (Abkhazia) goes along the seashore. Behind it are mount Adler’s sanatoriums. Hotel rooms in Adler are slightly cheaper than in Sochi – and something about it leaps to the eye when on the beach. Locals call the tourists bzdykh – a word unknown outside of Sochi. But anyone who has visited the beach will know the difference: the Sochi beach is nothing but fat bodies, sweaty with beer and stronger liquor, naked torsos and feet in sandals.” }

{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/rob02.jpg”, “text”:”Every year Mikhail Pavlovich Korabelnikov, 77, makes a train trip of 3,000 km from Novokuznetsk to Sochi. At 37 he was a miner and was gradually promoted to a foreman in charge of 150 miners. His very promising career came to an abrupt end when he refused to become a member of the Communist party, he proudly says.” }

{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/rob03.jpg”, “text”:”Little Dima burnt his feet at a exuberant barbecue party hosted by his parents. His doctor proscribed a stay at Matsesta, famous for its miracle working sulphur baths. So now Dima holds his burnt feet in running sulphur water for six minutes three times a day. If he does it for a longer time, the medical effect would be less pronounced – on the contrary, the treatment would do more harm than good, because of the mineral water composites.” }

{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/rob05.jpg”, “text”:”Khamzad Ivloev, 44, served for the Interior Ministry in Karabulak (Ingushetia). Once at nighttime he stumbled upon a mine trap: the grenade was stuck into a glass the so that the slightest movement could provoke an explosion. At that moment help arrived. Khamzad yelled to them to get out. No one answered. Then he decided to fling himself on the grenade. «When I look back at it, it was all in vain. I sacrificed myself for a bunch of piteous cowards.»” }

I am still extremely interested in Russia. I miss it a lot. I hate the current regime in Russia but that is probably the only thing that I hate in Russia. Ok, I also hate being on Russian roads.

My visa application was rejected in 2013. I wanted to apply once again for it to see if it still would be rejected, but my colleagues Donald Weber and Jonas Bendiksen, who were also rejected previously, said that you need to wait for five years to make a new application after a rejection. So it will be in 2018.

“The Sochi Project” book was published by Aperture: the 4000 copies were completely sold out. There will be a second edition soon. And we had a lot of exhibitions all over the world except Russia. If any gallery in Russia would like to do our exhibition that would be fantastic.

At the beginning nobody knew anything about these games. But in the end every traditional media needed stories from Russia. I mean alternative stories around the Olympic Winter Games. But these stories were not available anymore because the Russian authorities completely locked down the whole region outside the Olympic bubble. So if you wanted to go as a foreign journalist to the North Caucasus for example it was simply impossible. But we had done all the work very much in advance. So when photo editors needed alternative stories about Sochi, they had to contact us.

{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/rob04.jpg”, “text”:”The road to Gimri has been a center of resistance to Russians for a number of centuries. It twists and turns across a spectacular landscape. We stopped to take a picture of a village on the opposite side of the valley. Two cars stopped beside ours, men in leather jackets got out. We were arrested. «Aren’t we allowed to go to Gimri?» I asked the jackets. «Of course not,» one of them answered shortly.” }

There is really a long list of international media who had published our pictures. And that helped us a lot with PR for the Sochi Project. You could think that after the Olympic Games it is all over, but the whole position of Russia in the Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, the MH17 crash, those kind of things extremely support the fact that people continue inviting us for exhibitions and stay interested in our books and website. Because our story is not about the Olympic Games, this story is about the current regime in Russia. And that is the reason why people still want to see our exhibition and our book: they try to understand what is happening there. We never say that if you see our work you will understand what is going on in Russia but at least we have a kind of a position in it. It’s just how we think and understand Russia. It’s not objective of course. Objective journalism does not exist.

You can draw a division line between news and background stories. If you talk about news the question is, “What is happening?” and if you talk about a long-term project the question is, “Why is this happening?” That is a big difference between me and many photojournalists. I am interested in why things are happening.

If you want to know what is going on in South Sudan, for example, you can simply find all kinds of Facebook or Flickr pages with photos from local people. So in my opinion there is not so much need in photographers who cover events. But there is a big need in photographers who try to place all those events into a larger context.

I am more interested in long-term projects. They are more complicated. You need to investigate things and you need to go there probably more than once. If you can make it in short time – great! But I don’t really believe in quality when a project is made in a hurry.

{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/rob06.jpg”, “text”:”This is a monument to Russian-Georgian friendship, now solitary and abandoned, on the Military Georgian road. Built between 1799 and 181, at the moment of its construction it was a masterpiece of engineering art. Russians needed this road at the time of military conquest of the Caucuses. But it also facilitated Russian defence of Georgia from the Ottoman and Persian empires – as a result, the Georgians lost their independence.” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/rob07.jpg”, “text”:”Nearly all the Olympic facilities are complete. During Putin’s visit in early 2013 it became apparent that the cost of the games exceeded 50 billion dollars. «During construction there could be an exсess of expenses, but it has to be accounted for,» Russia Today quoted Putin as saying. «But the most important thing is to make sure that nothing is stolen and that there were legal reasons for additional costs.»” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/rob08.jpg”, “text”:”Rosa Khutor is a strange amalgam of Stalin neo-classic architecture and an Alpine village. It is the last Olympic village in the long Krasnaya Polyana valley, built by investment companies of oligarch Vladimir Potanin. This modernistic, eclectic and luxurious place is a small embassy of Planet Moscow in the Caucuses, where President Putin’s dream of new Russia has come true.” }

I strongly dislike prejudices about situations or people and try to question this in my photography. I come from the countryside where people have a lot of prejudices about each other but they never hardly ever listen or speak openly to each other. That is the thing that really frustrates me. Another example – how many Russian Orthodox people would visit a mosque to see what goes on there? People think that they know a lot about all kind of topics or all kind of people, and they make up their minds without asking questions to these people or without ever speaking to them. That is how prejudices are born. What I try to do in my work is to question these prejudices.

People only imagine that they know a lot. In reality they can’t even talk to someone they form their opinion about.

If I lived in Russia, I would try to make people think twice about what they are told by the TV. The Russian propaganda machine is one of the most dangerous things in Europe currently. Now I’m living outside Russia and what I’m doing in the Netherlands, for example, I’m giving people different thoughts about Russia. A lot of people say that Russia is a dangerous country and Putin is playing a stupid game. I tell them the regime in Russia is dangerous, but not the country. And Putin isn’t playing a stupid game, he is playing a very smart game.

I like books and exhibitions because you really can play with the viewers’ mood. First you can confirm a prejudice to gain trust of the viewer and on the next page you can totally knock down this prejudice and take a different standpoint to confuse the viewer. You can give people a sense of an answer by one picture and the next picture will make them feel confused because the answer was not that clear. They have to think again and again. That is actually how I see the world; the answers are not that clear. Besides, many things are hidden from us normal people.

If you can’t raise money to publish a book, most probably it means that the idea it is based on is not good enough.

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World Press Photo is really good for PR. We got a lot of attention for “The Sochi Project” after we won a first prize in 2012. In Russia, this contest is clearly very important, so we are grateful towards World Press for granting us so much attention in that country.

In 2010 we got an award at New York Book Award. It is an extremely small contest. But the name of this contest makes people think that it is a great award. After we won it every Dutch paper wrote about it. So the name helped us to raise interest to our works. So my advice is if your works fit the contest then submit. But if you need to pay a substantial fee for submitting then don’t do it. I never do it anymore. The aim of those contests is not to award photographers, but to financially support the organizers.

Until now I preferred film but now I started testing a digital camera. It is a Hasselblad, also medium format. It is cheaper than film. I really love the slowness of the film. But now I think that I’m not going back to film. It starts to become too expensive and too complicated to work with. Also I have my doubts about the quality, which will decrease if it becomes a marginal product.

Until the end of “The Sochi Project” we hardly earned any money. I totally do not care about luxury, so not having money really doesn’t bother me. Now when somebody buys the book money goes to the bank account of the foundation behind it “The Sochi Project.” That’s our own foundation, we started it especially for The Sochi project, to keep the money separate from our private money. The money which still comes in for “The Sochi Project” will be saved in the bank account for the next project. But of course we benefit from the project now. For example, now a lot of people ask me to do something for money, like do a workshop or lecture, etc and and do other jobs. So indirectly I now benefit from doing “The Sochi Project.” But the project by itself has never been profitable.

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We have the most fantastic job in the world. I guess people sometimes forget about it. Having money is totally useless. I mean what do you want to do with money? Buy a pretty expensive car? Wow, that’s fantastic. But I don’t need it. I get satisfaction doing my job, telling the stories. But telling the stories is expensive that is why I need a little money for my work.

Photographers who inspire me are Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, especially the old works, Alec Soth, he is a big inspiration for me, also Jim Goldberg, Donald Weber, Jonas Bendiksen, Rafal Milach, and younger photographers like, Raphael Dallaporta, Maria Turchenkova or Arthur Bondar..

It’s usual news that triggers me. Or being somewhere, traveling or walking around, meeting people, listening to people’s stories. It’s just the world around us that inspires me most. I mean – just step outside and you will find interesting stories. I get inspired every day and I have so many ideas in my head for new projects that it is difficult to choose from.

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