Review: Empty land, Promised land, Forbidden land by Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen


Book Reviews, Photobooks


You’re probably aware of the fact that if you skip the essay(s) in most photobooks, you’re not missing much (if anything). In the case of Empty land, Promised land, Forbidden land by photographer Rob Hornstra and writer Arnold van Bruggen (see their joint site The Sochi Project), you would miss at least half of what makes this book what it is. This points to the fact that while you could treat Empty land as a photobook, in reality it’s something different. In a nutshell, it’s a documentary, transformed into book form. (more)

Empty land is the result of a series of trips to Caucasus (and Turkey), in particular to what is now the Republic of Abkhazia, a tiny sliver of the Caucasus currently recognized by four countries (plus two other regions that basically have the same status as Abkhazia; in terms of size Abkhazia is not quite three times the size of Rhode Island). In a nutshell, if you follow the news closely you will be at least somewhat familiar with Abkhazia, otherwise you will have never heard about it.

Of course, Empty land is a great opportunity to change whatever you might know completely, because the book chronicles the region’s evolution from Georgian break-away province to more or less independent country over the course of a few years, starting in 2006. You could probably have all kinds of arguments about whether or not Abkhazia should be independent or whether it should be part of Georgia, and, who knows, there might even be some merit to such arguments. But if you pull back a little bit, those debates aside, there are lots and lots of personal stories, to be told by the people who live there or lived there, and it’s those stories Empty land mostly centers on.

Through Hornstra’s photography and Van Bruggen’s text you get to know the people in the region. You learn a little bit about history (recent and otherwise), you learn a lot about local customs (which all seem to involve incredible hospitality and rather heavy drinking), and you learn something about two dedicated journalists, traveling across the region, trying to get the material for the stories they want to tell. What makes Empty land so fantastic is not just that it informs you about the region and offers you some photography, it does it in a way that, I think, hints at where at least some contemporary photojournalism is moving.

Oh, I know, is this photojournalism? Shouldn’t I call this documentary photography? But then maybe the time of the macho photojournalist, parachuting into some conflict region for three days to take more pieta photographs, is truly over (no really, I don’t need to see and certainly don’t need to hear any more of this stuff). These days, we really need something else.

You are probably familiar with The Sochi Project. If not, this might be a good opportunity to check it out. Empty land is their latest publication. To use the lingo, The Sochi Project is crowd-funded journalism. Their sketchbook tells you how you can order the book if you’re interested in it (“You can order the book by sending an e-mail to or”).

In terms of the photography, Empty land matches the quality of 101 Billionaires easily. I’m even tempted to say that the photography has evolved a little bit and has become even better.

A most excellent book, highly recommended.

Empty land, Promised land, Forbidden land, photography by Rob Hornstra, text by Arnold van Bruggen, 271 pages, The Sochi Project, 2010