On the way to see Sohrab Hura, the only Indian photographer other than Raghu Rai to be nominated by the photographic collective, Magnum, the phone flashes this message from him: “Any place works where I can eat, haven’t eaten since yesterday”. As he slurped on his tagliatelle dressed in pesto at Perch in Delhi, we perused through his first self-published photobook, Life Is Elsewhere (2015), which forms the cornerstone for his subsequent works — Look It’s Getting Sunny Outside!!! (2011) and A Proposition for Departure (2017), a sound notation book that coincided with the exhibition “Sweet Life” at Experimenter in Kolkata. Look It’s Getting Sunny Outside!!! was recently shortlisted for the Paris Photo/ Aperture Foundation Photobook of the Year Award.
Life is Elsewhere offers ingress to the rest of his work. Through the catchall, grainy, diaristic images, bolstered by pencilled notes in Hura’s hand, he offers glimpses into “my life, my love, my friends, my travels and my sheer need to experience all that is about to disappear”, as well as life with — and for — his mother.
In the summer of 1999 — one learns from the accompanying text — Hura’s mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. The condition that held both of them hostage had begun to manifest “a few years prior to that. But it was the break-up with my father that caused her condition to suddenly come alive and then deteriorate. People had stopped coming to our home because my mother was too scared to let anybody in and all that remained were traces of a life that no longer existed”.
A trip to Ladakh that Hura took, at the behest of his father, with a stock image photographer whom he calls “Mr Walia”, proved to be a breaking out. “I think it was the need to get the hell out of home. There was a certain rigour that came in, whatever little it was. My focus was channeled into something else and it was good to be doing something. When I came back and gave the film to a local lab in Delhi, the owner took me aside and said, ‘these are really good photographs’. And I think, in a really long time, I felt really good and photography, because of that, became a need. We all want to feel like we exist in some way,” says the 37-year old.
After years of documenting rural India, including the sun-stunned terrain of Pati in Madhya Pradesh, to which Hura still “returns from time-to-time”, he turned his gaze to life back home. “I started photographing my mother, as opposed to people of the villages I’d go to, because I felt there would be more accountability. I’d be more in check and I wanted to experience how it would affect me. In a way, it’s a more special thing. It was the first time I wrote about how much I hated my mum at the time, for all that had happened. I gave it to her and thought she’d be pissed off but it made her really happy. That allowed me to photograph her more,” he says.
This birthed the next self-published photobook, Look It’s Getting Sunny Outside!!!, by which time his mother was on the road to recovery. It holds within its folds works strong in colour, stark in composition, which make palpable the affinity between mother and son, husband and wife, pet and master; and swing between lacerating and warm, commiseration and curiosity. Though he deems the first photobook to be “more sentimental” than the second, the latter was born of the need “to break away from the knowing that I knew how to make it”.
In the Instagram-age, however, the diaristic approach — its creation and consumption — may not qualify as a radical act. But the distinct narratives in these confessional photo autobiographies, almost like diaries he lets people read, reveal far more than just himself or those that make up his world. In electing the less flattering aspects of his life, his dog Elsa’s fleeting expressions, the stains on the washbasin, he risks aestheticising suffering, but the true triumph of the photobook is the glorious conviction that also makes its name: It will get sunny outside.
This extends to other forms Hura dabbles in — short films (Sweet Life/ The Song of Sparrows in a Hundred Days of Summer) or the collection of short stories he is putting together, or even sound. In A Proposition For Departure, he assesses the relationship between sound and images. “It had begun, as an experiment, to work with an online synthesiser that helped me scan points within the images. At times, the images I scanned also required specific alterations and manipulations to produce the desired flow of sound frequencies. I wanted to try and extract sounds that would reflect a state of being that I had felt at the time of making the image. In the end, eight sound extractions out of eight images that are part of the show, were stitched together to form a three-movement sound piece, a sort of a sonata that fills up the gallery space,” he explains in the book.
While this hopscotching between forms might seem wilfully chaotic, Hura says, “I don’t ever want to be straight-jacketed into being a bookmaker or a certain kind of photographer. The whole idea is to be free of my own self. I am quite happy about the fact that I am not moving forward in a linear way, and instead, in seemingly different directions. Though all of it is very logical to me, somewhere, in the long run, this trajectory might make more sense to others.”