Marika Bajur sings 'Kuriu' in the restaurant Eurasia. The southern Russian city of Sochi lies on the Black Sea and attracts predominantly Russian holidaymakers who come for a mix of sun, sea, sand and nightlife. Restaurants are plentiful and competition is fierce, with every restaurant employing a regular live musician blasting Russian chansons and popsa © Rob Hornstra/INSTITUTE. This image is from The Sochi Project: Sochi Singers, and won first prize Arts and Entertainment Stories, World Press Photo.
"Last winter Arnold and I were sitting in a restaurant talking about our schedule when a singer started her repertoire," says Dutch photographer Rob Hornstra. "We knew this, because it always happens in Sochi restaurants and we do not always like it. It is perfect music to drink vodka and dream away, but not to have a conversation with someone.
"At that moment we realised that it would be a great idea to depict Sochi by photographing these singers. The phenomenon of these live singers is typical Sochi (and also typically Russian, it has a long tradition), and it also reflects the loud, screaming tourist industry. And maybe even more important in this series are the interiors."
The resulting images have won Hornstra first prize in the Arts and Entertainment Stories category at World Press Photo, but for him they're part of a larger project he's working on with writer/film-maker Arnold van Bruggen, The Sochi Project. In 2014 the winter Olympics will be held in Sochi, a Russia city close to the conflict zone of Abkhazia, so Hornstra and van Bruggen decided to document the region in the run up to the Games. "In the past Sochi has been the pearl of the Soviet Union, a beautiful open city with a lot of Soviet grandeur," says the photographer.
"After the collapse of the Soviet Union, investors started to build anonymous hotels on every open space available, so now the city is a mixture of capitalist anonymous hotel monsters and hidden soviet grandeur. The prices of services are extremely high (like the Cote d'Azur), but the service in many places is still Soviet low. Above all there is always smog in the city because of massive traffic jam. In my opinion there is not really a reason to visit Sochi.
If you analyse the interiors, it is clear that they may not refer to the Soviet history. Russia (and Russians) wants to present itself as a modern nation and, according to most of them, Soviet interiors do not reflect their modern life. Restaurant managers want their restaurant to look modern in a global style, and apparently they decide to copy all kind of styles from all over the world - Greek columns, French lace curtains, Roman paintings, American elements and so on. It's resulted in an eclectic mixture of styles which I now recognise as the new Russian style.
"You could also come to a conclusion that these interiors are actually without style. That fascinates me. A country tries to get rid of an old culture (Soviet) but doesn't have anything to replace this old culture so it ends up with... (fill in yourself). And that's what Sochi is (and the whole coastline around it), an beautifully ex-Soviet resort looking for a new identity."
The project has received attention in the press but is not funded by it - Hornstra and van Bruggen are instead using a combination of crowd-funding and book and print sales to back the project. They have 358 donators to date, and have published books, posters, prints and catalogues ranging in price from €5 to €1000.00. "The Sochi Project is a unique, in-depth and as such costly project," they write on their website. "Dutch newspapers and magazines are unable to undertake or afford a project of this scale. We think it is important that independent, documentary journalism continues to exist. That’s why we are doing it ourselves."
But while being independent is "very nice of course", as Hornstra puts it, it's also difficult - which makes winning the prize all the more important. "We don't have the luxury of a 'quality label' and a guaranteed number of readers like journalists who work for The Guardian or Time Magazine," he says. "We are completely individual, which has many advantages but is also sometimes a struggle. Prizes help us to get some more recognition, some more attention, some more followers."
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