How did The Sochi Project change over the years you worked on it?
Arnold van Bruggen: We originally intended it as an online project with a large publication at the end. When we launched a crowdfunding campaign to finance the work, we promised our donors an annual gift and, because we’re real book lovers, we decided to make a publication at the end of each year.
Rob Hornstra: The first annual publication – Sanatorium – was just a booklet, but in 2010 we produced a really comprehensive document about [the territory of] Abkhazia, which was received and reviewed by many as a book on its own. This made people take The Sochi Project more seriously.
Why did you decided to divide the project into smaller stories?
Rob: Early on in the project we realised that it could be divided into three regions, so each one became a separate chapter of the story. This model fits 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.
Why did you decide to crowdfund?
Arnold: We didn’t want to depend on 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 and the incredibly photogenic region of Abkhazia, so we were sure to have thousands of donors in the first year.
Rob: We believed there was a dedicated crowd, that understands this kind of story can’t be funded by the traditional media and is ready to pay for it 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 by an invitation-only policy. Even now, the most successful crowdfunding campaigns are for short-term projects with clear goals, like “fund my book” or “pay for my trip”. We had a five-year-long project and would have to ask for around €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 $5 – donations. We set up a three-level donation model for €10, €100 and €1,000 and called them bronze, silver and gold respectively because of the Olympic Games reference. Our goal was to convince 1,000-2,000 people to donate €10 per year in exchange for some behind-the-scene stories – but that was a mistake. The crowdfunding system required a lot of administration, and we never had more than 300 bronze donors at a given time.
The biggest challenge was bridging the gab between people saying that they’d donate and actually doing it. This wasn’t because they didn’t want to fund the work, but because the step of giving €10 was too insignificant for them. On the other hand, silver and gold donors were very loyal to the project and infused it with substantial amounts of money.
What would you recommend to someone considering crowdfunding?
Rob: Keep it simple, set a clear goal and make your campaign a bit sexy to increase the audience.
Arnold: Know what you’re 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 Sochi Project now exists in the form of a book, exhibition and website – what are the differences between each?
Rob: The storyline’s the same, but you 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 the Kummer & Herrman design team on board when working on the books.
Arnold: We went through several versions of the website and settled on one that presents a tight edit and strictly linear narrative and allows us to control how you experience the story.
What advice would you give photographers and journalists planning to work on a long-term project?
Arnold: Be ambitious and look for opportunities to collaborate. Make 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. Don’t underestimate what you can achieve either, just set out to make the best project ever.
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Images: © Rob Hornstra / Flatland Gallery. From: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus (Aperture, 2013).