Rob Hornstra – 101 Billionaires – Crisis Edition

Copyright Rob Hornstra 2008 courtesy of Rob Hornstra

In 2008 Rob Hornstra successfully self published his photobook 101 Billionaires, which was well received and the first edition was sold out in early 2009. Economic fate dealt Hornstra a very nice lead-in for his slightly revised second edition. The world’s economic crisis in 2009 substantially reduced the amount of Billionaires in Russia to 49, thus was born Hornstra’s Crisis Edition. By the way, and it is probably not a secret, but his subject is not about those who were the 101 Billionaires, or even the 49 remaining billionaires in Russia.

Russia went into a steep economic and social decline in the 1990’s, especially outside the edges of Moscow. With Putin now in charge, it could be argued that Russia might not be in as steep a decline, but it is far from being healed. The real subject is about those who are attempting to eke out a living and survive in the aftermath of the post-soviet 90’s, and to state the often used quote for this book; “revealing the other side of modern Russia, the raw reality that lurks behind the façade of the power elite”.

This book is a lively combination of visual and written narratives. The 101 photographs within the book are segmented by sections; Cement Town, Credit, The Sweet taste of champagne, Paradise lost, Death of a junkie, Frontovik, Firmly behind Putin and Lyubov’s children. Each section has a brief two page introduction providing a contextual map for the following photographs and each section includes one spread providing extended captions for select photographs from the section (see last image below).

I found a three part dis-harmony running through the book; the environmental context, the old and aging and the youth. The non-Billionaires are found far away from Moscow, out in the vast territory that Hornstra labels the hinterland. The Urals and Siberia account for probably 75% of the territory of Russia and here Hornsta mined the cities of Asbest, Angarsk, Irkutsk, Verkry Tagil, Nizhny Novgorod, Novozhilkino, Kirovgrad, and Chelyabinsk.

The urban exterior environments of the homes and apartments are not appealing and pretty. The housing and apartments within the cities are drab and gray, appearing to be run-down, with some appearing to be abondon and very depressing to view. Multiple apartment homes appear to be rising up in the darkness or lurking within a hazy landscapes and it is not known if this is natural fog or a thick industrial haze.

Hornstra’s photographs of the interior conditions within these living spaces do not fare much better. The paint is visibly flaking off the walls and ceilings, appliances in disrepair, furniture appearing to be the barest of necessities with the kitchens having only rudimentary cooking equipment. For the homes of the drug addicts, with the drugs being brewed on the stove or the table tops littered with needles and other drug paraphernalia, the photographs appear even grimmer and depressing.

Within these living conditions, Hornstra found a wide breath of humanity. There are the older stoic elders who attempt to put on the good face, while the youth appear not to care about hiding their disdain or boredom. The aging adults are stiff and proudly festooned with medals and ribbons from days of past glories, appearing to be in a time warp and struggling to adapt. Hornstra usually photographs them standing in a formal pose, probably one of their own choosing, wearing their best attire, frontally facing the camera, direct and unflinching.

In direct conflict are the photographs of the youth, who are seen partying, playing, drinking, dancing by themselves or in groups, carousing, and romancing. Some of whom experienced the 90’s as teens have become the fringe society, now addicted to drugs, dying from AIDS, buying and using drugs, perhaps selling themselves in the process (e.g. basic hourly rates, which does not limited oneself to a single customer) to obtain the money for drugs.

The very young appear relaxed, joyful and seem to be unaware of what maybe their limited future. As they become young adults, they appear to be more guarded, closed, suspicious, weary, or if caught unaware, bored with too much time to waste.

I also find a subtle humor running a delicate thread throughout the book, especially with the selection of the paired-up photographs across facing pages.

A pair of photographs, each with two “birds”, while on one side are the two available dancers perched on a couch and on display while the other photograph has two stuffed birds perched on a rock within a display. Both set of heads are facing similar directions, creating a mimic effect between the facing pages.

Another pair of photographs, the semi-nude we are informed is one of 15 participating in “The Best Striptease from the Urals”, holds a cloth strategically over her groin. The facing photograph is an much older, tired man, sitting at a sparse kitchen table who has his joined hands on top of his lap, echoing the same hand pattern as the dancer. The young and tartly is faced off against the old and tawdry, representing the current and present with a gloomy glimpse of the future.

Two young guys, dressed in similar black clothing are out ice-skating together, with big smiles. The facing photograph has three dowdy older women, one with gaping teeth, also wearing similar patterned clothes and head scarf’s, but joined together within a living room, the table before them is littered with dirty plates and bottles of wine and spirits in the process of being consumed. Each age group is finding their common ground and comfort zone. A subliminal message about how the adventurous and playful youth will over time soon become sedimentary and confined.

From an interesting and enlightening 2008 conversation that Joerg Colberg had with Hornstra and this project, Hornstra states:

“Documentary photography is the use of images to tell a story based on real events, from the perspective of the photographer. Documentary photography bridges the gap between photojournalism and independent art photography.

I believe that documentary photography is a form of art. Just like ‘autonomous photography’ (I don’t know how you call this in English). By the way, there are many overlaps between these forms. Somebody wrote that one of the most general explanations of art is that art is an expression of the human soul. That is exactly what documentary photography is. Otherwise it is not documentary.”

I believe photojournalism is something else. Not better or worse or more difficult or easier or whatever. I do not believe that journalism is independent (you know everything about that in the US), but I believe that the goal of the photojournalist should be to focus objectively on what is happening at a certain moment and not what his/her opinion is about it. That stands in contrast with making a documentary where the most essential part is your opinion. However, I realize that being independent for journalists is almost impossible. I think inside every journalists there hides a (small or big) documentary maker.”

All 101 of the original photographs are still in Hornstra’s photobook (to take further advantage of the 101 count, I had monentarily thought about making this review the 101st on the The PhotoBook), but the 16  gatefolds have been eliminated (see this example from Andrew Phelps blog Buffet) to make this book a more “Crisis” sensitive and economical book to purchase. Potentially making this book perhaps as collectible as the first edition, the belly band has been modified with a cross out of the 101 text, with additional text on the wrap around stating that there are now 49 Billionaires as of the 2009 second edition printing. This is an interesting and creative marketing ploy.

The small size hardbound book is nicely printed and bound, a delight to hold and read.

by Douglas Stockdale

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