Dutch photographer met Olga Bubich and talked to her about the changes in on-the-spot reporting of events, dangers of avant-garde vanity publishing and underrated books

This autumn «The Month of Photography in Minsk» (Belarus) is hosting «The Sochi Project» – a huge long-term photographic and journalistic research on the Caucasus area which in 2014 became a Winter Olympic Games venue. Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen, now both banned an entry to Russia, at the example of their own professional activities show what «slow journalism» is and to what extend working in it requires thorough preparation, careful sources study and critical reflection on the “stories hidden behind every front door” – thus making the approach rather unpopular among today’s photographers more interested in quick result and immediate fame.

Rob Hornstra

Rob Hornstra, 2014 (Photograph by Bernhard Mueller)

Bleek Magazine: Your way to photography was actually not so straight. Your first major was quite unusual – you studied social and legal services and only then decided to switch into photojournalism. Do you think your first specialization actually helped you? In which way?  

Rob Hornstra: It did help me – absolutely! But I should start with saying that I was actually not allowed to study photography by my parents. I wanted to enter the Art Academy when I was 18, but I failed and in a way there was no chance for me to get there at that time, and neither was I ready for it. I was too young and not really sure about myself, photography or anything at all. It was just not a good moment to study it, so my parents were right by prohibiting me.

My parents wanted me to have a successful career and according to them becoming a photographer was not a very safe job. It was another point where they got it right – it is really difficult!

An interesting fact was that my major in social and legal services helped me discover one thing about myself – I realized I was interested in people and wanted to know more about them. I come from quite a conservative catholic community of the Eastern part of the Netherlands, so I was not used to the big world outside. I started getting curious about people and the world which seemed so different from where I came from, discovering whether all the closed community’s prejudices really worked in the bigger world. In 9 out of 10 cases they did not.

For instance, a person who was considered to be a village lunatic appeared to be a poet or an intellectual. The community was just trying to make itself stronger by saying that everyone outside was wrong and stupid… By the way, Putin is a good example.

Social and legal services was a nice combination for me to explore – a mix of rational and social things. Moving to the city I had to deal with all sorts of difficult youngsters with the criminal record, but it posed no problem for me at all. Just the opposite, I continued developing my genuine interest in people, especially in those who are very different from me.

Both the photographer’s and the probation officer’s jobs (on finishing my studies and moving to Utrecht I used to work as a probation-officer) allow me to research how other people, other communities and regimes function.

It is also interesting that after getting my second education I chose to live in the area most of my «clients» from the probation officer’s times came from. That is in the neighborhood full of people and life which was quite far from my own. That makes it interesting to dive into it, to understand it.

I remember that when I was living there, my mother came to visit me for the first time in that house and after having seen my neighbor, she said, «Oh, you have to stay away from him! He is a dangerous guy!» Ironically, this «dangerous guy» is now a topic of my project which I am trying to finish after more than 10 years of work.

So this experience allowed me to reconsider my own prejudices regarding people, because, as everyone else, I also have them. I try to translate my research in my work and I hope that it would make people start reconsidering their own prejudices regarding this or that group I picture, for example marginal individuals. To put it in a simple way, I want my mother to start reconsidering her prejudices about my neighbor. And this is one of the main goals of my photography – trying to make some people think about some things.

Bleek Magazine: And why for translating your messages did you chose «slow journalism»? 

Rob Hornstra: Any choice we make has to do with what kind of people we are. As for me, I do not feel very comfortable being in frontline of news events together with a whole bunch of reporters and photographers standing there to capture something happening around. In the last ten years this approach even became useless!

Everybody has telephones now and before the reporter arrives to the place where a bomb exploded, all the news events could already have been captured by ten citizens living there!

So, basically everything we see in the news industry is staged photography. Thus, I do not really see any point in this hardcore photojournalism, in going somewhere and capturing what is happening pretending that you are objective. I do not feel attracted to this job.

Rob Hornstra

Photograph by Rob Hornstra. Gudauri, Georgia, 2013 – This monument to Russian-Georgian Friendship, lonely and rundown, towers above the military highway, a feat of engineering at the time of its construction, sometime between 1799 and 1817. The road was necessary for the Russians to conquer the Caucasus. It also made it easier for the Russians to protect the Georgians against the Ottoman and Persian empires, but consequently the Georgians forfeited their independence. From the book: “An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus” (Aperture, 2013)

I do not say all photojournalism is bad, there are some really fantastic journalists and photojournalists. But I do not actually believe there are many of them nowadays.

I would not present my opinion on whether this sort photojournalism is going to die out in future, the only thing that matters for me is that it does not fit me personally. Instead of being interested in capturing what is happening in the places I read about in newspapers, I am much more attracted by searching the answer to the question, “Why?” And this “Why?” is also quite an interesting issue in terms of the way you choose to approach it.

One question you can ask about the Olympic Games is, for example, “Why are they being organized?” As for me and Arnold, the set of questions we were addressing in our “Sochi Project” were slightly different. If you know about the tensions between the North Caucasus and Russia and you hear that the Winer Games are being organized in Sochi you might be interested to know why such a sensitive place was chosen as their venue. Learning more about that area you might also suppose that some of those people would want to try to disturb these games. And then comes our why-question, “So, why would it happen? Why would a bomb explode at the Sochi Olympic Games?” But in the end we were not interested in the question if it was really going to happen, more in trying to understand why that probability would exist, why it could happen.

Fortunately, there was no explosion, but our questions remained.

Why are people so extremely desperate that they are ready to give away their own lives?

So, we were diving deeper and deeper into the history of violence in the North Caucasus to get to know why it was and it is still happening there.

Rob Hornstra

Dranda, Abkhazia, 2010 – Writer Arnold van Bruggen and photographer Rob Hornstra working on The Sochi Project in Abkhazia’s only prison named Dranda

And since we prefer the question of “Why?” to “What?”, we never have to be in the place in the moment when the event is happening. Like we did not have to be in Sochi when the Olympic Games were actually taking place. But, for example, I could easily imagine myself going to Syria 5 years after the end of the war. Or being there 5 years before the war broke out – that would be even more interesting.

If you capture things explaining why – then for me you are an interesting story-teller.

Bleek Magazine: What role does the photobook «An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus» play in «The Sochi Project»?  

Rob Hornstra: We call our way of working with the project “a four-step rocket plan” because when the rocket is launched it always loses its parts, one by one. So, the first step is an exhibition, which we see not even as a project, but as an introduction into it, since the information is given to the public in a very broad and very accessible way. It is like the project’s advertising, if you approach it from the commercial point of view.

The second step is the book which appears when the public gets impressed by the exhibition, by our “entrance point” and then hopefully wants to know more. People who are interested in purchasing it are usually driven by the desire to take it home and dive deeper into the images. And our last book really permitted them to do it, since it has large images, detailed descriptions and captions. There is a lot of information in it but the reader does not have to consume it immediately, from the start. I think that when reading this book, people can learn a lot about the North Caucasus.

The third step of our “rocket-plan” is our web-site which basically contains the same information, but also has an archival function, presented in three languages (including Russian). You do not have to pay to get access to all the information presented there, everybody can use it – it is totally democratic.

Rob Hornstra

Installation shot of the exhibition “The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus” at CONTACT Gallery Toronto, Canada

And finally the fourth step. It is the media. The way we treat traditional media differs from how most photographers approach it, that is we have never had a feeling that we had to sell our work to magazines and newspapers, the money-making perspective was not what interested us. Rather we use the traditional media as an advertising platform. And we basically start working on that even before “the exhibition step”. It is like a small teaser which you get for free in media when you publish your work. In order to reach the audience outside the small circle of art and photography world, you need to use different tools.

Publishing a photobook is a nice tool, but we must admit that outside the photography or art circle there are not so many people who are ready to pay money for a photobook.

So photographers have to think of various ways how to show their work to a wider audience. Not only focusing on the art circle because it would be too tricky or too dangerous. And also because within this art circle you have people who already know something – intellectual people of the country or whatever. They are inside this circle and they buy books but they do it for each other. So, your message does not really gets spread, it just stays inside.

And I think that in case of “The Sochi Project”, the fuel for our rocket were the Olympic Games, because they allowed us to build everything around the marketing and PR-machines of the event – during the games we got approached a lot by all kinds of mass media really world-wide. So, for more people it became possible to learn about our work.

Bleek Magazine: And if you were to advise a kind of “the golden rule” for newcomers in photography, what would you recommend them to do, first of all? 

Rob Hornstra: First of all, to think unconventional! That sounds very logic, but that is what, in my opinion, today’s photo-industry lacks. It really lacks creativity in the way people present things into the world. The majority of what the photographers are doing is just copying their predecessors. “Everyone is making photobooks – oh, then I also want to make a photobook!” But they seldom think of the reasons why they actually want to make a photobook. There is no reason except for “I want to have a status on the photography scene” or whatever.

Bleek Magazine: Like vanity publishing?

Rob Hornstra: Exactly! I do not say that it is wrong.

But I am missing creative ideas and creative minds who would be brave enough to say, “I am not doing it to gain publicity in the photo scene, but I want to try to this in order to bring the story to the world”.

That is quite ambitious in a way, too.

People never ask themselves the question, “Why do you want to make a book?” Maybe it does not make sense! Are you just making it for your colleagues? As for me, I really like photobooks and I am very happy that people make them, but sometimes the goals they have behind them are not achieved. This fact often becomes a reason for me being critical about the photobooks I review.

I do not understand why people would not think a little bit further the format of the photobook. Instead of spending 20 000 – 30 000 euros on it, they might just publish a newspaper, say, for example in the edition of 50 000 copies and spread it out for free! And that would be much more effective than publishing a book for 100 people who already know everything about these stories!

Rob Hornstra

Installation shot of the exhibition “The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus” at CONTACT Gallery Toronto, Canada. A significant part of the works in the exhibition is printed on newsprint

So if you ask me about the golden rule, it would be about the understanding of why the photographer is doing things and then trying to think “out of the box”. That is really important and we need more people within the photography scene who would look wider than just the borders of the art world.

People who are publishing 20 fancy photobooks have to understand and ask themselves why they are doing it. And I prefer a real answer. If they answer they are doing it because they want fame in the photography scene, I will understand it, although for me personally that is a very empty life. If you get your fame, what is next?

But my criticism is directed not only at people who are making photobooks, but also at those who are rating them.

Bleek Magazine: I know that within FOTODOK space for documentary photography you not only do talk shows about photobooks but also lectures on various topics in contemporary visual scene. And one of them actually dealt with “end-of-the-year-lists”. And a peculiar list you once introduced was “The most underrated photobook of the year”. Can you share a few names that you wish were given more publicity? 

Rob Hornstra: Today in the world of photobooks there is too much attention to overly-designed books, to small gadgets, or “gems” as they called them, produced in 10 or 20 copies, which look very avant-garde, often printer-produced or handmade.

You take them and as soon as you open the first page you realize it is just a fancy stuff, it is about nothing. Whereas a book with a really thorough investigation into topics which really matter to the world can remain completely ignored.

So these fancy gadgets have been recently given a sky-high recognition and the photographers who make them believe to remain famous forever, whereas a very thorough investigation probably presented in a rather “conservative” way and dealing with very important topics might get totally ignored.

For example, the photobook “The Grey Line” made by Jo Metson Scott. For me it has been one of the real discoveries. The book sheds light on the investigation of British and American soldiers who after the Iraq war came back to their home countries with their views totally in opposition to war. This topic is a very sensitive one, since the soldiers are forbidden to say something negative about war and to talk about it at all. They even sign contracts where they agree to keep this information secret, which in my opinion is already violating human rights because people should be free to talk about any type of the experience they have had. So, it was dangerous both for the photographer and her subjects.

Still, Jo Metson Scott managed to finish the project and get the book published. She made a magnificent body of work which is extremely important for our society. Despite the obvious significance of the book, it remained totally ignored by the artistic community, because I think for many art critics it was too difficult to write about it whereas totally insignificant books which are only gadgets, only funny and originally designed continue to attract the critics’ and public’s attention.

That is my criticism of the world of photobooks and whenever I have a chance to give a lecture, I try to talk about it as well.

Fortunately, there are a few critics who do have their own opinions and do not follow the key figures in this world, but I am afraid that the photo world is now dominated by simple minds. Not only the world in general, but the photographic society in particular is very selfish today. It is all about trying to get recognition.

This is also what I am trying to teach my students in the Art Academy in the Hague – to make them focus on what is going on outside the gallery. And I believe that all the great artists and the photographers were inspired by what happens in the world and not only by the events from their own scene or from the art gallery. That is what I believe is important for the artists of all the ages to realize.

© Bleek Magazine. Interviewer: Olga Bubich