Sohrab Hura: ‘It is important to constantly question my position in whatever I do’

The photographer, who is Magnum Photos’ first Indian full voting member on the responsibilities that come with using a camera

Image is everything: Hura’s photograph from the series Rooftop (Picture courtesy: Sohrab Hura/Experimenter)

In 2014, you became a Magnum nominee. At the time, you had stated, “I really appreciate their rigour. I only have to be watchful that I don’t turn into a machine in the process.” How do you look at that statement in retrospect and your work in the interim?

This process has been really good for me. It has helped to know that I’m part of something larger in terms of community. I have been attending the annual Angkor Photo Workshops in Cambodia, working with other photographers in Kathmandu, Tamil Nadu and other places, and with friends in the larger region here. They have all been part of my larger ecosystem that has constantly reminded me that there are amazing voices and perspectives and that Magnum is just one platform. This let me work in the six-year period a lot more freely than I would have if I didn’t have this support system. Most importantly, photography and whatever else I did, remained fun.

If you could comment on the recent criticism against Magnum Photos for lack of diversity in its ranks.

The criticism has been needed. I don’t think diversity is a solution in itself. It is definitely a start but a more systemic change is what will really help Magnum reach a place far more meaningful. As much as the newer members grow with Magnum, it is even more important that Magnum grows with them. One of the main problems with photography is that it has often been quantified as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’, without taking into consideration context and perspective. When you have a relatively homogenous group of perspectives trying to define what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and if that group is predominantly white and male, it will always reflect something quite incomplete. I think Magnum’s history of photography as rich as it is, is also a very incomplete one and just bringing in diversity is not necessarily going to make any corrections. I think a much deeper shift within, which moves away from trying to define what is good/bad photography, is needed for a more meaningful change in the long run. I hope there is a beginning in that direction and more. I also think that only looking at Magnum in isolation is too convenient. If I retrace my own path in India, I see that it was always easier for me than most other people. To put it simply, when I look at the history of Indian photography that is meant to be representative – photographers, curators, critics, the list of editors of different publications and so on — I see these positions around me occupied by similar upper caste English-speaking people, mostly men, who are straight or who are either from North India or from metropolitan cities or from economic privileged background, most of whom are using similar quantifying standards of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ photography from their own homogenous perspective. Having had that position of privilege in common with the rest of the network around me here, makes my difficult journey to Magnum or elsewhere so much easier than most. So, if my being part of Magnum is considered being representative in any way by anyone, I’d only consider it delusion or denial.

How would you define the role of a photographer at the time of a global pandemic like now? Has it changed the way you look at the world around you?

I can’t define the role of any other photographer. No, this pandemic hasn’t really changed the way I look at the world but instead it has taken me back to experience something already familiar. I was in isolation at home when I started photographing my mother. Now I’m back to doing the same, having been in isolation once again during the lockdown. I think it has only made me rethink about what my mother might have experienced when she lived in isolation at a time that was considered more normal.

Hura’s photograph from the series The Coast. (Picture courtesy: Sohrab Hura/Experimenter)

In recent months, you have been chronicling scenes of isolation from the rooftop of your Alaknanda (Delhi) home. If you could tell us about this series titled ‘Rooftop’?

I didn’t intend to make this into work of any kind. I just kept going out onto the rooftop of my Barsati in the evenings so that I could feel better during the lockdown because I was alone. Sometime into it, I started carrying a camera with me just to find an excuse to get into a routine of going out in some way every day. Others were doing the same on their rooftops and each rooftop felt like an island because of that distance. I guess I was just looking into my own island even if I photographed other rooftops.

In 2016, you, Alec Soth and Jim Goldberg took a road trip through the southern US. In the exhibition that followed in 2019, ‘The Levee’ you returned to your father’s text messages sent from the ship, stating, “When you get the chance, tell me what’s beyond the levee”. What prompted you to juxtapose your photographs with his taken from the ship? Also, in a note you state, “The America I found on the way was not quite the same as the one that my father had imagined.” If you could elaborate.

I’m increasingly interested in what position I take with my work. In the case of America, I was aware of both my father and me having been outsiders. My father had gone up the Mississippi river on a cargo ship that he was captaining and all he saw of that part of the country was what he could see on the river between the two raised embankments (levees) on either side because the immigration rules didn’t allow him to leave the ship. A couple of months later I made my way down the river on land to the point that he had come to and photographed what he was not able to see. This was during the time of the American election campaigns in 2016 and there were reports of racial violence in the news all over. It was important to put both perspectives together in the context of the politics of that time, especially because showing only one side would have been quite simplistic.

I believe you like martial arts and admire Bruce Lee. You once mentioned how Lee made you comfortable with the multiplicity of forms of photography. If you can share how.

When Bruce Lee proposed Jeet Kune Do, he talked about the philosophy of being like water and taking the shape of whatever vessel that water fills up. In essence he talks about adapting, but what stayed with me was the notion of not being tied to any one form. It helps me to distance myself from photography enough to realise that photography is far more malleable than I might have recognised otherwise. In the beginning, it helped me to not root myself in any one style in pursuit of authorship because style is just a crystallisation. But, later, this freedom of being like water let me think more in terms of images than photographs. And images could be still, moving, text or sound, unlike photographs. Today I’m thinking more in terms of building experiences for the audience. I have been thinking in terms of the architecture of that experience, depending on the pace, rhythm and intensity.

Your photobook The Coast and the video The Lost Head and The Bird allude to violence and volatility in Indian society. You begin the book with a fantastical short story, for the video you turn to the archives, including war scenes from the television series Ramayana and a video from Ek Chidiya, Anek Chidiyan. What made you turn to the past to analyse the violence of the present? If you could also talk about balancing the psychological and physical aspect of violence through the series?

Actually, to be more precise, I’m looking at the idea of power through narratives that are generated and manipulated. Violence is just one very immediate manifestation of that manipulation and I cannot not mark myself within that system. Which is why in the short story there is an idiot photographer who is as culpable as the other male characters on the violence being inflicted upon Madhu, the protagonist whose head has been stolen by her obsessive lover. In the book and in the video work, this story is repeated a dozen times and in each repetition changes are made to a few words, which doesn’t seem to make much difference at first when you consider the immediately preceding or subsequent story, but from the first to the twelfth story the meaning changes entirely. By the last story, the three male characters have been absolved of their roles in the violence and in fact Madhu is to take the responsibility for all the violence on herself. It is through these small seemingly harmless changes or triggers in narratives that we are seeing great upheavals today. What is happening politically is a very obvious reference but the same is happening at every level and scale. Even in the #MeToo movement it wasn’t surprising to see that after men were called out for sexual harassment new narratives would follow that would cast doubts on the credibility of the women or deflect in another way so as to diffuse the original story. Even on our social media, we are consciously generating narratives that might help build our image/s to our audiences. I see it as a kind of image warfare that is happening at every scale. This manipulation isn’t new though. It makes me think of the stories told and untold to me when I was growing up. This hiding and revealing of information affected my sense of the world while growing up, till I started to proactively search for more information. I remember as a child, watching news on television about militancy in Kashmir, the foreign tourists who went missing in Kashmir and also the Kargil War. But I don’t remember watching or reading anything about the Kunan-Poshpora incident or any other event that might contradict the larger convenient nationalistic perspectives. It makes me wonder how such filteration of information might have affected how my generation (and others) might make sense of the world today. It’s the only reason why I’m curious about tracing my way back to my childhood to think about what might have become the building blocks for my entire generation. It makes me think about how the current generation of people might grow with the blatant image warfare in progress right now.

At 17, you began photography as a catharsis when your father gifted you a camera after your mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. You shared some of those personal moments of your mother’s battle with schizophrenia in “Life is Elsewhere” and “Look it’s Getting Sunny Outside”. If you could talk about curating and sharing these personal visual journals.

For a long time, I thought that the catharsis lay in making images of my mother and her dog. But actually what helped me was sharing that work. Whenever I showed it, people experiencing the work would share with me their own experience of mental illness. In the beginning, those conversations were difficult but the more frequent they got, the more my own life and my own relationship with mental illness within my family felt more normalised.

You described your 2005 photographs documenting people on work schemes in villages as an example of “politically influenced propaganda”. Do you think that experience shaped the future course of your work?

It made me question my work on many levels, including how I was dealing with people who I was photographing. It made me come to terms with the inherent power hierarchy that having a camera brings in relation to the people being photographed. It made realise that no matter how responsibly I might have photographed people, in the end the real agency lay in how and in what context I might put the work out. These were difficult questions to deal with in the beginning but this is an inherent baggage of photography that I have learnt to embrace and I recognise there are problems within photography that will remain unresolved, but it is still important to constantly acknowledge and question my position in whatever I do. In the beginning, till I could find a way to come to terms with this unease with the medium, I had stopped making a certain kind of work, but I do believe that especially given the times that we are living in now, it is important to question the world more than ever. My vocabulary might seem different but my intent is again similar to the time when I started in 2005.

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