The Sochi Project: Empty Land, Promised Land, Forbidden Land
Photographs by Rob Hornstra and text by Arnold van Bruggen
15 March – 21 April 2012

Private view: 15 March, from 6.30pm
Talk with Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen: 16 March, 6.30pm


We knew almost nothing about Abkhazia when we visited for the first time in 2006. During our virtual travels through the country across maps on the internet, we discovered a fascinating landscape of mountains and rivers, with the majority of the towns spread out along the Black Sea. We read about snowy mountains of dizzying height that rise straight out of the sea, about endless beaches and lush gardens full of palms, tea bushes and citrus trees. We put the place names Sukhumi and Gagra in our mouths and savoured them like exotic morsels.

This coastal strip on the Black Sea was once the Riviera of the Soviet Union. Stalin had two dachas there. His successor, Khrushchev, swam in Pitsunda’s warm waters when the Communist Party in Moscow ousted him to make way for the party mastodon Brezhnev. In the literature and Soviet guidebooks, Abkhazia sounds like a dream, a subtropical oasis on the Black Sea, a promised land.

The more we read about it, the more it enticed us, like a fairy tale; but a fairy tale tinged with black. On the flip side are the ruins, the pot-holed roads along which only the overgrown, concrete stairs of houses still stand, the rusted gates and car wrecks, the twisted remains of the horrific civil war that erupted here in the early ’90s. It reminded us of areas such as Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Kosovo, all small, violent and unviable provinces of artificially created countries. Abkhazia had been destroyed by civil war and forced into isolation, but had kept itself going for 15 years despite an international boycott and a tourism-based economy in a region without tourists.

The Abkhazians live in devastation and poverty. During the war they deported 200,000 Georgians and in so doing went from being a vacation paradise to a totally isolated country. The 200,000 refugees live in equally impoverished conditions and are filled with nostalgia for their lost paradise. This cynical parallel was the reason for us to make four trips to Abkhazia and to record this obscure and painful conflict.

Empty land, Promised land, Forbidden land is not an encyclopaedic history or analysis of the conflict or the geopolitics in the region. Rather, it is an ode to the Caucasus and its proud inhabitants.

The Sochi Project

Empty land, Promised land, Forbidden land is part of The Sochi Project, started by Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Burggen in 2009. Over the course of five years, their aim is to map out the extensive region around the Russian resort of Sochi, where the Olympic Winter Games will be held in 2014. The Games are being organised in Russia’s most unstable region, the Caucasus. Under the slogan ‘slow journalism’, Hornstra and van Bruggen request donations from the public to crowd fund the project, whose scale and length is financially unviable for the mass media.

About Rob Hornstra

Hornstra (b.1975) is a documentary photographer who has worked predominantly on long-term projects. He has self-published seven books – Communism & Cowgirls (2004), Roots of the Rúntur (2006), 101 Billionaires (2008), On the Other Side of the Mountains (2010), Empty Land / Promised Land / Forbidden Land (2010), Safety First (2011) and Sochi Singers (2011). Despite increasing print runs with each self-publication, each has sold out ever faster than the previous. He has been commissioned by international magazines to produce documentary series and has also taken part in numerous exhibitions in the Netherlands and abroad. Hornstra has been the recipient of eight grants over the past six years which has allowed him to publish books and also continue working on personal projects. Hornstra is represented by Flatland Gallery in the Netherlands and Institute for Artist Management.

About Arnold van Bruggen

Van Bruggen (b.1979) is a writer and filmmaker. With his journalistic production agency Prospektor he has written and filmed numerous stories. In 2001 he published his first major reportage about the presidential elections in Iran. In 2004, his first film ‘Amsterdam-Kosovo’, about the dilemmas of humanitarian aid, was selected for the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Over the last few years van Bruggen has travelled to many corners of the earth, particularly Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Arnold believes in the power of a well-told story to connect people with worlds they don’t know themselves. His articles reflect his personal engagement in and love for the tragic absurdity of the documentary stories he undertakes.

This exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue and copies of Rob Hornstra’s other books (Sochi Singers, Safety First and 101 Billionaires) are available at the Foto8 Gallery.

For further information and images contact, 020 7253 8801