I recently interviewed the team behind The Sochi Project for the IdeasMag online publication. Below is a slightly extended version of the interview.
Since 2007, photographer Rob Hornstra and writer-filmmaker Arnold van Bruggen have collaborated to document Sochi, Russia, where the 2014 Winter Olympic Games will be held. We spoke about crowdfunding and working across different platforms…
How did The Sochi Project change over the course of five years you worked on it?
Arnold: we originally intended it as an online project with a large publication at the end. When we launched a crowdfunding system to finance the work, we promised our future donators an annual gift, and because we are real book lovers, we decided to make a publication at the end of each year.
Rob: if you look at the content, not much has changes since 2009, but the work grew rapidly. The first annual publication – Sanatorium – was just a booklet, but in 2010 we produced a really comprehensive document about Abkhazia, which was received and reviewed by many as a book on its own. This made people take The Sochi Project more seriously and changed our own attitude towards the work.
Why did you decided to divide the project into smaller stories and how did it change your approach?
Rob: this model really fits The Sochi Project and our way of working. We do slow investigative journalism, spending a long time on each story, which allows us to make separate publications for each chapter.
Early on in the project we realised that it can be divided into three regions, so each one became a separate chapter of the story. All three come together in the final book, but we can’t give each chapter as much space as we did in the annual publication, which were more in-depth accounts of life in and around Sochi.
What are the biggest challenges of working on a long-term project?
Arnold: you can look at it as a road map from 2009 to 2013: when we started the journey, we knew that our final destination was a comprehensive book about the region, but the rest was planned year by year.
Rob: we had deadlines at the end of each year, so focused on a separate story for each annual publication. It’s important to note that the choice to go to the North Caucasus at the end of the project was a strategic decision because we expected to have problems renewing our visas after it.
All in all, we didn’t think it through in great detail and allowed ourselves to be influenced by what we saw on the way. It was a healthy combination of strategy and coincidence.
Why did you decide to crowdfund the project?
Arnold: we didn’t want to depend of arts grants or compromise the narrative to sell articles editorially, so crowdfunding seemed like a logical choice. We had a story with a clear deadline that involved the Olympic Games, a centuries-old conflict, an incredibly photogenic region of Abkhazia, so we were sure to have thousands of donors in the first year.
Rob: we also believed there is a dedicated crowd, who understand this kind of story can’t be funded by the traditional media and who is ready to pay for them directly. Probably we were a bit naïve.
Why did you decide to set up your own crowdfunding system instead of using platforms like Kickstarter and what did you learn from the experience?
Arnold: back in 2009, crowdfunding wasn’t that popular; Kickstarter was just starting out and run the by-invitation-only policy. Even now, the most successful crowdfunding campaigns are for short-term projects with a clear goals, like ‘fund my book’ or ‘pay for my last trip’. We had a five-year-long project and would have to ask for around EUR 300,000 at once, with no or little material to show.
Rob: one of the inspirations for our crowdfunding model was the Obama campaign, which was largely funded by very small – around USD 5 – donations. We set up three-level donation model for EUR 10, 100 and 1,000 and called them bronze, silver and gold donations respectively because of the Olympic Games reference. Our goal was to convince 1,000-2,000 people to donate 10 EUR per year in exchange for some behind-the-scene stories, but that was a mistake. The crowdfunding system required a lot of administration work, and we never had more than 300 bronze donators at a given time.
The biggest challenge was to bridge the gab between people saying that they will donate and them actually doing it. This was not because they didn’t want to fund the work, but because the step of giving EUR 10 was too insignificant for them.
On the other hand, silver and gold donators were very loyal to the project and infused it with substantial amounts of money.
What would you recommend to someone considering crowdfunding their work?
Rob: keep it simple, set a clear goal and make your campaign a bit sexy to increase the audience.
Arnold: know what you are getting yourself into and be prepared to spend 50% of your time working on the project and 50% administrating the crowdfunding campaign.
Rob: on the bright side, by the time you finish the project, you have a dedicated audience enjoying and willing to promote your work.
The final version of The Sochi Project exists in the form of a book, exhibition and website – what are the differences between each form of presentation?
Rob: the storyline remains the same, but you will get a different experience on each platform. We achieve this by separating the responsibilities: Arnold is in charge of the website, while I manage the exhibition and we bring Kummer & Herrman design team on board when working on the books.
Arnold: we went through several versions of the website and settled on the one that presents a very tight edit and strictly linear narrative and allows us to control how you experience the story.
What advice would you give to young photographers and journalists, planning to work on a long-term collaborative project?
Arnold: be very ambitious and look for opportunities to collaborate. Make more complex stories and care not only about the content, but also its presentation
Rob: focus on quality. There are too many people trying to do everything at the same time, but to say that you on your own can produce work of the same standard as we do, as an entire team is a pretty arrogant statement.
Don’t underestimate what you can achieve either, just set to make the best project ever and do everything you can to achieve it.