In Sochi, every “self-respecting restaurant has a singer,” The Sochi Project’s Sochi Singers notes (I’ll try to limit the use of the word “Sochi” in the following sentences, I promise; this and all following quotes are taken from their website). The city is a tourist resort (“The smell of sunscreen, sweat, alcohol and roasting meat pervades the air.”), and of course restaurants have to be competitive. The level of cheerfulness that is - presumably - the intended result of the singing escapes me: “Chansons are Russian ballads, but the comparison with French chansons is only partial. The songs have their origins in the age-old Russian tradition of labour camps and prisons.” And: “nowadays the term ‘chanson’ more often refers to the saccharine genre of Russian-language dance music. It is usually accompanied by a heavy disco beat and occasionally even a dash of techno.” Labour camps to a disco beat: I don’t want to know what that sounds like. (more)
What I truly enjoy seeing, however, is what this looks like: In a nutshell, it’s a smallish stage with a table. On that table, there’s a laptop computer plus a mixing board. Cables connect all the various devices, including the microphone(s) for the singer(s) and, inevitably, the loudspeakers. There might or might not be a cheesy backdrop. Everything looks a bit karaoke - except that here, there are no TV screen from which the lyrics are read.
Sochi Singers is a rather large book, but you need the size to be able to see what’s actually going on. Everything that is relevant for the stage/singer is contained in the frames. You will find yourself studying the images, looking at all the various things on or next to the stage. The singers often look directly at the camera while doing their job - so there is that additional element of almost being there.
In the crudest sense of the word, the photographs of the singers (there are some photos of Sochi beaches in the book, too) are shot as a typology. But applying the idea of a typology really takes away from the fun that you’ll have looking at this book (I bet you haven’t seen the words “typology” and “fun” used all that much in the same sentence, have you?). Mind you, the book is not making fun of these singers. They are presented as what they are, and the text that comes along the photographs provides the necessary background.
With a focus on a very troubled region, The Sochi Project’s attention to something that is very much part of that region, but that is not part of any sort of trouble (other than the audible kind), shows that hard-hitting documentary work can indeed be combined with something that is lighter fare. This doesn’t mean that things always need to be light. But adding something like the cheesy singers in Sochi restaurants to the many other more troubling aspects of the region shows that what is happening there - and everywhere else - is multi-faceted: Our simplistic ideas of “this is good” and “this is bad” too often miss a more complex picture that, let’s face it, we are very familiar with from our own lives.
Sochi Singers, photographs by Rob Hornstra, essay by Arnold van Bruggen, 80 pages, The Sochi Project, 2011