For the past five years, photographer Rob Hornstra and journalist Arnold van Bruggen traveled through Sochi, Russia, and its surrounding areas, to document the region’s people and politics. They uncovered everything from genocide to love stories. Each year they visited they produced a new “chapter” of The Sochi Project, which has amounted to a tour-de-force of journalism, now presented at the DePaul Art Museum.

The timing is perfect—in just three weeks Sochi hosts the Winter Olympic Games, on February 7. “It’s a complex region,” says DePaul curator Greg Harris. I interviewed Harris about the exhibit, which opens Thursday, January 9.

Why was it important to bring this exhibition to Chicago?

In a couple weeks we’ll be watching figure skating and skiing on TV. This huge global event is going to plunk down in a diverse and interesting and unstable part of the world. Once the games get started, though, all of the flag waving, athletic competition, and ad spots will displace the bigger story about the people who live there—the laborers who built the stadiums, activists, ethnic and religious groups fighting for independence.

We've heard about Russia's anti-gay laws, recent terrorist bombings, and anti-Putin protests. What are some other eye-opening things you learned about Sochi from organizing this exhibit?

There’s a man who was working as a police officer when a situation arose where a terrorist group threw a grenade into an area he was protecting. This guy jumped on the grenade and lost an eye. He was severely injured, and was no longer able to work. He thought he was acting as a hero, but he was cast aside by his community. He regretted putting his life on the line for the cause.

Will The Sochi Project change the way we think about contemporary life in Russia?

Questions arise, like, what is a country? What does it mean to have national pride? There’s a story about the postal service for a country that may or may not exist. Abkhazia was formed out of conflict with Georgia, but the country is not recognized by the UN. That political drama is played out through the eyes of Abkhazia’s postmaster. Such peculiar things pop up in light of these nationalistic conflicts. Hornstra and van Bruggen try to tell both sides of the stories—the authorities and the radicals—with a certain degree of empathy.

Free. DePaul Art Museum, 935 W Fullerton,