Rob Hornstra’s new vision of Russia,“101 Billionaires”, is a sprawling, epic tale of hardship, vice and endurance. The vision is vast, looming large like a massive ship that is listing from side to side in the dark night, carrying the rich on top and the poor below the hull. It is a Russia that is strong and sprawling in its steel-bohemoth-scale, yet precarious in its position and newly free situation… ready to dump many its inhabitants to an icy-harsh-frozen-tundra-death or spit them out into a hospital or rehab. The rich tend to escape and many of the poor battle, scrape and cling to life for some time before finally dissolving into the depths. Beauty is abundant in the imagery but it is a permafrost tough beauty with a layers of grey, layers of history, layers of neglect… layers of loss.
This is a modern Russia in flux…. it is a history made of iron, made of steel, made of ice… made of blood. Industrial zones and iron factories built by prisoners of the past still stand looming like monsters… ready to swallow up the hinterland and its inhabitants yet simultaneously give them sustenance. Once full of roaring fire and sweat, these monsters had gone into hibernation with the fall of Communism and now are slowly rising from their slumber. The capitalists are working to bring them back from near extinction and the landscape is still one part decay and rust, one part hope and new found possibility.
With this new hybrid culture comes rapid wealth for some… but also, all vices and problems know to modern man. Russia is Europe’s largest heroin market… drug use and HIV use are rampant in this new world with Russian police often playing a role in the heroin trade… tales of drug users yanked off the streets and forced into clinics, handcuffed to their metal beds and forced to survive their first month on a diet of water, bread and garlic are told. Torture, rape and death are byproducts in this drug addled new world.
Rob’s vision and his images smack the viewer in the face in bringing this tale, a colorful and alive yet sometimes emaciated and simultaneously titilating vision. Through a vivid photographic vision a story in overdrive is told…
From the book…
“Children’s home number 1 is clean and tidy. In Russia it is relatively easy to take your baby to a children’s home, but it does require you to relinquish all your rights. In many cases, it is drug or alcohol addicts who bring in their babies. This infuriates the director. She calls some mothers conveyor belt mothers. ‘They should sterilize them. What kind of mothers are they? They keep drinking and taking drugs, even when they’re pregnant,’ she says. These children exhibit serious deficiencies. ‘This little baby came in three days ago and is already my favorite. She is a very happy baby, very bright.’ She will stay here for four years before she has to move to a home for older children. The director tries not to think about it.”
“It won’t be long before boys like Danil and Sergei have to complete their obligatory 12-month military service. Many young boys try to avoid it at all cost. The Russian army is infamous for its initiation rituals and tough training. Every year, between 300 (according to the army) and 3,000 (according to the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers) Russian soldiers die and that is not even in combat situations. Often harrowing stories have emerged of recruits who have been stripped of their savings, food parcels and extras. It is predominantly the low wages that allow these sadistic practices to continue. For those who survive the army initiation rituals, desertion or a court case almost never offer solace. Deserters are branded for life.”
“Fifteen women are battling it out for the title “Best Female Striptease from the Urals”. They come from Magnitogorsk, Tyumen, Nizhni Tagil and the regional capital Yekaterinburg. The final is composed of three parts: an interview, a lap dance and a freestyle strip act. The interviews with all the dancers are a disaster. The microphone is broken and none of the girls have a good voice, anyway: it is impossible to understand a word. But this is perhaps the fault of the audience who can’t keep quiet. The lap dance is hilarious. The bottles of vodka being served can’t keep up with demand. And then the closing number. The girls have to improvise to completely unknown music. Nastya from Tyumen, who stood out in the qualifying round with her own, slowly sensual style, has difficulties with Rammstein. She’s hopeless. Valeria does a little better; although her spectacular closing spin on the pole doesn’t end well. Natalie steals the show. She dances to a steamy French number, throws her underwear into the audience, crawls over the jury table and toys shamelessly with the male commission members. She wins the first prize: a holiday to Turkey. The second and third prizes respectively are an LCD TV and a sound system from an unknown Chinese brand.”
This work weaves human themes like the fabric of a massive flesh and blood quilt… survival of the fittest plays out as a massive game of Chess or “Risk” … human life and the struggle for existence are portrayed. Good and evil lock horns… who is the predator and who is the victim? Moral truths seems to fade timidly into a camoflauged mask that is painted in shades of grey. Who will eat and who will starve? Who will kill and who will be killed? Those who are the haves and those who are the have-nots dance around in a historic and oh so familiar dance… the powerful roll over the powerless. Hope for some, and hopelessness for others. Statistics from a news story come to life as a dull-muted-pain of far off places… little tiny figures in history like ants on the pavement are brought smack into your lap, looking at you, you looking back at them. Look into their eyes… look into their world… look at their life and look at their death.
Perhaps these photographs and words serve as a force to eliminate the numbing viewer distance that is such a part of this web based modern world… or perhaps it just serves as powerful photography and powerful art. What are you going to do with the knowledge? What are you going to do with your emotions? What are you going to do to “feel” through the numbness?
Perhaps there is no answer… and perhaps there shouldn’t be one. Regardless, this is important, this is beautiful, this is photography… as it is, as it should be. In the case of “101 Billionaires” it is epic human history, pure existence, people struggle, epic stories are told… grey is there like a blanket but within it is colorful, beautiful and bold.
Order the book.
Also, Martin Parr’s Witness Magazine did a quick article on Rob’s book making process… interesting read.
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