A Glimpse At Life In Sochi Before The Olympics Swept In

Photographs of Sochi and its people reveal how little sense it makes to turn this small seaside city into a world stage for a winter sporting event.

As winter Olympians, fans, media, and businesses descend onto Sochi, it’s hard to focus attention away from the controversies (the protests over Russia’s anti-gay laws and the #SochiProblems Twitter tag taken up by foreign journalists, to name a few). But what of the city itself? To explore the complexities of Sochi and its people, two Dutch journalists, who have covered Russia and its surrounding countries for years, created The Sochi Project.


The Sochi Project is a work of both visual and text-based journalism. In an ominous introductory video the pair created for The Sochi Project, a clip of Vladimir Putin saying, “Sochi is a unique place” is followed by the message, “Sochi is a unique place. A subtropical tourist resort amid conflict zones.” The line serves as the overarching thesis for the project: that it makes little sense to turn Sochi into a world stage for a winter sports event that symbolizes global harmony. For one, the climate is subtropical. For another, Sochi sits on the edge of a combat zone. (Violence between militant cells and Kremlin forces left more than 500 people dead in the neighboring North Caucasus last year.) And the Olympics haven’t brought Sochi the glory one might hope. Homes have been forcibly demolished and laborers for new structures have gone months without payment, The Sochi Project’s creators Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen say.

Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen divvied up their report–which includes hundreds of interviews conducted over the last five years–into seven sections, each with parallax scrolling. (For a closer look at endless scroll design, go here.) In its entirety, it’s a deep dive into Sochi’s history, which, on the site, kicks off in 1864 with the Russian czar’s efforts at ethnic cleansing of the Circassian population (Circassia has since been folded into Russia).

Perhaps most chilling are the photographs. Hornstra has documented the Soviet states for years, and for The Sochi Project, he has amassed a series of portraits and landscapes that all have a deadpan, beleaguered look to them: there’s Tatjana, a woman standing with a stern face in the middle of her greenhouse (which, she says at the time of the interview, the International Olympic Committee wants to raze); there are young teenage couples, in bathing suits on a coast dotted with industrial freights; there are stern-faced volunteers at a local election. Everyone is staring straight into the camera with an unsmiling gaze.

Hornstra says that he has practiced this style of portraiture since his days as a photography student. For all his work, and especially in The Sochi Project, he describes the Caucasus–the war-torn region, which includes Sochi–as his studio. “I…always use standard lens (no zoom) [and] always flash to reduce shadows and other romantic lighting effects,” he tells Co.Design. “I try to make simple, but very concentrated and powerful images.”

The photos feature a lot of normal stuff. Like much of life, it’s not glamorous. That candor says a great deal about the Olympics without mentioning the games outright. Sochi will hardly be the first time Olympics critics take issue with the mega-funds poured into buildings–like the Beijing Bird’s Nest, which a few years after the Games stood empty and unused–especially in areas beset by poverty and violence. But rather than outwardly campaigning for the Russian government to consider worker’s wages before ice rinks, Hornstra and van Bruggen have negotiated a space where they can bring viewers into the day-to-day life of Sochi, and judge for themselves.


Read and view The Sochi Project, or order it in book form, here.

About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.