Two dogs meet on the street in Moscow. The first dog says, "How are things different for you with Perestroika?" And the second dog says, "Well, the chain is still too short, and the food dish is still too far away...but now we are allowed to bark as much as we want." - Anonymous 1995.
There is a telling moment mid-way into Rob Hornstra's 101 Billionaires. While visiting some young addicts, one of which suffers from Aids and drug-resistant TB, a woman describes Hornstra and his friend as "a pair of snotty disaster tourists." Such is the burden of young documentarians as they try to describe various aspects of contemporary Russian life.
According to statistics, Russian now has 101 Billionaires - people who made their fortunes as the wall fell and the empire collapsed buying cheaply the newly privatized industries. These few rise into a strata that shields them from the difficult reality of everyday life. Outside of Moscow, many smaller towns suffer from a lack of jobs and for the young, seemingly endless months of boredom. In turn, drugs, drinking and prostitution become common alternatives to pass time or earn money. Many of the images sadly imbue feelings of a female sexual awareness formed out of desperation. Young women compete as strippers (the winner receives a trip out of the country) and even when the photographer asks one to just "stand normally," she insists on staying in character, striking a softcore pose.
Hornstra weaves a fascinating trip through the lives of individuals, especially the young, who are forced to grow up too quickly and it may seem inevitable that all will end badly. Through photographs and compelling writing, 101 Billionaires is less disaster tourism than a book that cuts a wide swath through the contemporary hard Russian realities. It emphasizes the gap between the older generations who knew the old empire and feel a strong connection with it and the young 20 somethings who seem to be desperate to escape its void at all costs.
Hornstra's photography seduces with its use of bright evenly lit strobe and cleanliness of description. Its language and mix of staged portraits and still-lifes paints with an uneasy but loving curiosity. Hornstra is not 'snotty' but he surely knows how complicated photographs can be. He doesn't condescend or reduce individuals to stereotypes, his curiosity places him in the ranks of the documentary-style photographers whose tradition he follows.
An interesting comparison would be to Luc Delahaye's Winterreisse except where Luc's portrayal is a claustrophobic thrust into the hellish underbelly of post-Soviet life, Hornstra's allows the mood to be livened by showing the hard realities with a twinge of humor and at least some air. Both of these artists have a way of pushing their subjects into their own photographic realities and I suspect something resembling an actual portrait lies somewhere in-between.
Much of the contribution to this book is by way of the texts. Extremely interesting and well written by his two collaborators, Hans and Aldus Loos, these splendid short essays fill in the details that the photographs cannot. Unlike many text heavy books, this is a perfect balance of text and image. All of the authors know how to keep to the point without diluting the overall journey.
101 Billionaires has a great design with foldout text pages that allow the photos to exist on their own first. Inventive and clean, this is one of my recent favorites brought back from Paris. Only published in 1000 copies and going fast, this is sure to be recognized as one of the best books of 2008. It has already made my list and I doubt 9 newer books will be published by the end of the year to knock it from its rightful place. 101 Billionaires by Rob Hornstra was self published by his imprint Borotov.
Available from Borotov
For people in New York, Dashwood Books will have signed copies within a week.