Magnum Photo-Nominee Sohrab Hura On His Memories And Motivations

[This article was originally published on February 3rd, 2015] 
[Sohrab Hura is going to be launching his book ‘Life is Elsewhere’ at 7PM this evening, at the Sunaparanta Goa Centre for the Arts, Panjim.]

There are few contemporary photographers today whose repertoire draw you so far in into their work that your engrossment leaves you utterly oblivious of your own surroundings, gripped by a narrative that is pieced together by each consecutive photograph. It is the grit of reality, and an undaunted approach to darkness, that makes Sohrab Hura’s working both disquieting and riveting.
Getting to see ‘Life Is Elsewhere’ in its physical form, in its 144-paged glory, at the Sensorium Festival in Goa, with lamplights capped by seashells illuminating the photographs, is an experience that leaves you with silence pressing against your eardrums. It makes browsing through the works of your favourite photographer on the internet seem like a saddening sort of compromise we really ought to be able to do better than. Sohrab’s reputation precedes him not only for the immense achievement of being the second Indian nominee for Magnum, the prestigious photography agency founded by Henri Cartier-Bresson, but also - amongst those who are familiar with his work - for the seething emotions that bleed monochromatic from his photographs.
Sohrab leaves us transfixed with this conversation, an intimate affair weaving its way delicately through the vicissitudes of his relationship with photography, how it has evolved, the immense power of retrospection and what it is that makes a body of work timeless.

Quote by Milan Kundera.

I. What is the most intense visual memory you have from your early childhood?
Kite running and catching hold of kites earned in battle. It was the most beautiful feeling.
II. What made you decide to be a part of Sensorium recently, and what are your thoughts on photography’s relationship with other disciplines like literature and music?
It was actually a spontaneous decision. Prashant Panjiar had asked me, and I trust him, so I said yes. I got to know more about the festival later, and have heard good things about it.
As a creator, I’m a bit hesitant to consciously think about such relationships. It can be a trap to tie yourself up in thinking too much, and not creating anything at all. This relationship can, of course, exist not just from the standpoint of creator, but also one of a viewer.

Writing from 2008.

When I view work by people such as Josef Koudelka, Larry Towell and Anders Petersen (and many more) I do hear music and that too, a certain kind of music, but it is rare, and not all photography makes me feel that way. It’s a bit difficult for me to explain why, but it perhaps has something to do with with my conditioning as a viewer by all the years of cinema that I have watched. It has conditioned me (us) to allow music to lead me through an experience while looking at photographs and even other visual mediums. For me as a viewer, this relationship with music is stronger than any other medium because I feel that music is more powerful and immediate a medium than most others.
On the other hand, from the standpoint of a creator, this relationship between different mediums has existed for ages. Right from silent films that used music to push a certain feeling through, to contemporary cinema that uses a background score to do the same. Nan Goldin’s projections that were accompanied with music were supposedly a powerful experience (and with music becoming a standard accompaniment to projections over the years it has also allowed for silence/s to exist in their own right), Lewis Baltz was very well known for his influences from cinema, Ed Ruscha moved between different mediums that also included photography, Daido Moriyama was influenced by Jack Kerouac, who also collaborated with Robert Frank, who was not only a photographer, but also a filmmaker, and then you also had people like Peter Beard who mixed text and photographs.


“India. 2006. In my mother’s room; where a painting was hung once, the wall just peeled away. In 1999 she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Her condition is a cyclical one and when her condition deteriorates it reflects in the condition of the house as well. The paint on the wall is starting to peel off again.”

This is just a very limited list of examples, and that too from a much earlier era of photography. Even in India, photographers like Dayanita Singh and Raghu Rai have occasionally mentioned the structure of classical music in explaining their own practice. There is for sure truth to this relationship, as a creator as well. However, I must mention that I also feel that today sometimes we over-think these relationships, and I feel that there is a certain undercurrent of thought (a very uninformed one) that has started to exist within photography itself that photography on its own is not good enough to stay afloat, and needs a lifeline from other mediums to rise above its own position as a medium, and I don’t agree with it.

As a creator, if I’ve consciously chosen a singular medium of practice - for example, in this case, photography, then it is extremely important for me to have a starting point where my intention is to push that medium as far as I can and, of course, along the way if it needs to mix with another medium/s then, that’s okay. But in no way can I allow my primary medium of choice to be weak enough to be dominated by another (which ends up happening in a lot of cases) otherwise there is no point of using the particular medium at all. Even as a viewer, a hierarchy between or amongst mediums can be very palpable. I’m interested in experiencing an organic blend of mediums which is actually quite rare to find, and my experience cannot just be the intersection of different mediums itself; that intersection has to exist to say something more than itself.


III. In your opinion, what is the need for more festivals like Sensorium in India, as far as photographers/visual artists are concerned? (Or is there one at all?)
I don’t know if there is a need for more festivals, or any at all. I think this is a question for which you may get a more worthwhile answer from the audience of the festival instead.
Personally... I go to festivals because friends of mine are there, or if it’s in a place where the food is good, or it can be an excuse for a holiday. This is my position on it today. But when I was starting out, a festival was a place where I could find an audience because the options of showing work were limited. Now with the way the internet is, you can do almost anything on your own, or at least have the option to do so. So you don’t necessarily always need a festival now to bridge that gap.

For young photographers/artists (and by this I don’t necessarily mean young by age) starting out, it can give them some confidence, especially when the festival bridges the young creator with the viewer in way that leads to conversations. These conversations can be important for a young creator (and sometimes the older ones too) starting out.

India. 2006. Ma smokes incessantly. On her bad days sometimes she doesn't believe that I'm her son.

I’m being specific to young creators here because, in my opinion, once you have gained a certain momentum to create work, sometimes festivals and such things can also come in your way and take away that momentum and energy. So for creators who have already left the shores, the need for a festival becomes more specific for each of them. For some, it could be a good thing - for others not so much, all depending on their state of being.

Your question will be more answered more interestingly by an audience visitor to the festival (and especially one for whom this festival is a first experience of its kind and therefore an unadulterated one without any baggage).
IV. As you traversed the various phases of your relationship with photography, what were some of the key aspects of the discipline that motivated you to persevere?
Luckily for me, somewhere in the beginning of my journey the question ‘What will I leave behind if I die tomorrow?’ became my most important concern.

This is the only thing that fuels me today.

India. 2009. Ma getting ready to have her medication

V. If not photography, what do you feel you would be doing, as an alternate profession?
I don’t know, I’d perhaps be dead??? It’s the only thing I have and so it’s difficult to think of an answer to your question no matter how much I’d like to do something else on occasion.
VI. Who are some of your biggest influences, from any discipline of the arts?
I’d have had a specific answer till about few years ago, which would have mentioned some photographers or artists. Till about half a year ago, I’d have mentioned some writer. But there’s a lot that is happening inside me that is not allowing me to really look outward at the moment, and so maybe I’m in a space where I’m not conscious anymore of all that I’m soaking in but I’m conscious of all that I want to do, and what I am trying to create. I’m a bit blanked out on these things right now.

India. 2009. An old photograph of Ma. She had not been photographed for about a decade till I took a few photos of her.

VII. Tell us your thoughts about self-publishing, and your upcoming photo book with emphasis on its narrative.
I think it is very tempting, but can also be deceptively difficult, especially for us in this part of the world. Practically and realistically speaking, most of the play-makers are in the west and most of the self-published photo books that are doing well are those that have a lot of legwork put in behind them, and whether we like it or not, today, a lot of this legwork needs to be done in places that are not close to us. It’s not just about selling those books, it’s also about making them live.

However, having mentioned the pessimistic/skeptical/practical part, I should say that on the bright side, it allows you free-flowing freedom to do whatever you want. And you can end up infusing a kind of life into your work that you can’t do in any other form.
Even if large-scale self-publishing of a book seems daunting because of all the other work required, artist books are also a possibility. One can keep playing and toying with one’s work to give it new meaning each time, and this will happen if one starts to do it oneself with the only intention being that to play and experiment with that form. If at a later stage, a larger publication of the book (self-published or otherwise) works out then it can be a sort of a bonus. But I think one must take all these things into account, and then find the best reason and purpose for doing it.

India. 2010. When I returned home after a long time.

It’s my first time self publishing, so I’m speaking with very limited or maybe even no experience at all, and I know that I am not capable of doing all that legwork that I mentioned. So in a way, it’s a bit of a risk, but I’ve had fun in the process and I guess I’ll have a better answer in a year or two.

I’ve been working on the book for many, many years now, and this must be the 8th or 9th physical version of it. It’s been great luxury to have been able to see it in so many different forms and to see where it is right now.
If I had had an opportunity to have printed it 6 years ago, I wouldn’t have seen it evolve into what it is. What helped was that I was creating entirely new work all the time on the side, so I didn’t end up feeling like I was vegetating while I was stuck with the book at times, and it allowed me to continue to work on it over the years. But I have to say that the book had started to slowly tighten like a noose around my neck and I’m happy to be getting rid of it at last.

The idea of doing it myself was cemented when my dog died and so the book is being self-published under the name ‘UGLY DOG’ under which other books of mine will also be published in the future; or at least the second half to ‘Life is Elsewhere’ which is already in the making. This gave me purpose and I wasn’t just thinking about the idea of self-publishing for the sake of self-publishing anymore.

India. Elsa, the darling of the house. When my mother is not doing well it affects her the most.

VIII. Tell us about one photograph or essay that you might not have been able to create in the same way, five years ago, and explain to us the growth that has facilitated the same.
Everything that I’m doing right now would not have been possible if it weren’t for the last 5 years. Everything is very fluid to me at the moment, and I’m working extremely freely (I feel). But it’s been a build up to this point. I’m aware that I’m not being very clear in my answers, and this one in particular, but there is no specific way to really explain it. How I feel I’m working is a bit like driving a vehicle with gears. I’m feeling the shift in each gear as I move across works and the choice to shift (or not shift) gears is one that I make consciously, and it’s making the drive a lot more wonderful for me.
In trying to break it down more... when I started making work, I thought I was obsessed with the medium; I’d eat, drink, sleep photography. But actually the medium had overwhelmed me beyond my capacity and was manipulating me into believing I had control over it. I think over time, I’ve gone through far too many phases of letting go of, and trying to re-appropriate control over, the medium, and with each change in the relationship I have had with the medium (in this case, photography) - something new has opened up for me.

India. 2008.

So I’ve done work and tried to finish it to the full capacity that existed in me after which I’ve immediately let go, depending on what stage of my entire process as a creator that work fell in. And then I’ve started again, from scratch, as a different creator who has existed in the person that I have been at that specific present point in life. For example, in the case of ‘Life is Elsewhere’, certain streams of thought and questioning led me, and the work, into a certain direction, but somewhere along the way my questions changed. In this case, I started to feel like I was gaining too much control over the medium. It was getting too familiar, and therefore easy. But at the same time, I was also starting to question the work itself; if I still wanted to say what the work was saying at that moment and I started to question myself over it all over again. Was the certain darker, heavier feel and tone of the work coinciding with how I had started to feel towards the end? Or maybe I was looking at the world in a much lighter colour by then?
These questions are not just about the medium, because the medium is also very much related to the world and your immediate environment, and also to the thought or the concept that is your concern. In this case, with my mother getting better and also with me becoming a different person, and with my relationship to the world also changing because of whatever factors (age, experience etc), my relationship to the medium could not be the same as well. So I looked to let go of control and ‘Look It’s Getting Sunny Outside!!!’ which is the second part to ‘Life Is Elsewhere’ in ‘Sweet Life’, allowed me to let go of the existing photographer in me as much as I could consciously.

India. 2009. Ani

These are things that I’ve discovered in retrospect and I realise this only now, when I have a certain amount of work that has gone through this process and I’m able to see the difference in my relationship with my medium at each stage, and also see a pattern it forms with the way I’ve looked at the world over the last many years. And maybe, actually my medium is still dominating me (maybe even more) into believing that I’ve existed in this tug-of-war with it, and asking those questions - who knows? Maybe after the next 5 years my answer will be in the same direction, but with different context/s. But this fight with the medium needs to go on.
IX. Is there any quality in a photograph that instantly puts you off, when viewing a body of work?
Not many things put me off. If I’m put off, then it surely must be great work too. For me, for a work to be awesome irrespective of the medium, I have to either absolutely love it or absolutely hate it. Works that don’t matter to me are works that I’m indifferent to, which are actually a lot of works.

India. 2006.

X. Who do you feel are your mentors in the photography world and what’s the one thing you’ve never told them?
I talk too much. I think I’ve said more things than I should have.
XI. A lot of young photographers who are trying to figure out their visual vocabulary get embroiled in competition in the age of digital photography and information explosion. In your opinion, what is it that makes a photograph timeless?
I think I will separate the two concerns in your questions to help me answer. It’s a good period for young photographers because they have a platform and they can be free of all the bullshit systems that exist where they come from, but what is bad is that now there is also a ridiculous amount of competition (that is more often destructive than constructive) because everyone has that same platform. For many players, it turns into a zero sum game. What has happened is that a new system has replaced the old one, and that’s brought in new platforms, new gatekeepers, new benchmarks and new expectations that are sometimes very destructive for a young photographer. It’s not as if these pressures are new; they always existed but at the risk of making uninformed assumptions, I would say that I feel that some of the older photographers before us (even in India) have had the luxury to have lived in anonymity for longer periods of time where they could deal with their fight with the medium for as long as they did, and were able to deepen their roots. On the other hand, the conditions today are not so encouraging for one to be with one’s medium in complete isolation. But this is what it is, and all young photographers need to make an informed choice in however they decide to take on the world.

India. 2007.

Regarding the idea of ‘timelessness’, you hear so often about the older photographers talk about an extra element. I think both Raghu Rai and Raghubir Singh have mentioned something on the lines of a ‘divine intervention’ and I think even Edward Weston is known to have mentioned ‘an element that cannot be named but a photographer must be ready to receive it’, I’m not too sure about my paraphrasing but I hope you get the point. That something ‘extra’ (that can’t be described easily), be it in the photographs themselves or in the context that the photos are living in, could be something that makes work transcend time. But I think it should also be kept in mind that photography today is somewhere in between cinema and what photography used to be till a few decades ago; the single photograph. So the question of timelessness actually is more difficult to answer in the context of today’s photography, which is more about the narrative than a single photograph.
In today’s world, though, from the point of a creator, this question is also kind of redundant. Today’s concern is more a matter of how long a work can and must, survive, than it is about trying to make something timeless. With so much work being generated, almost everything dies instantly. So the concern should be to make the work survive for as long as one can.

India. 2007. Ani.

Timelessness is a concept that we, in our generation, don’t have the luxury to think about. I know that something like this may sound scary to a young photographer; the thought that the existence of one’s work itself is at such high stakes in our world today. But in a strange way, it can also be a very exciting motivation for a young photographer/artist/creator; a sort of quest to give your creation as much as you can to make it survive for as long as it can. And maybe after you’re dead the work does end up becoming timeless. That, in itself, is a more beautiful thought than the idea of timelessness being a definite.
XII. Do you feel your work is working its way towards such a goal of timelessness and, if so, how? As a role model for several younger photographers of this generation, what advice (or just something that you have learnt along the way, that you’d like to share) would you give to them?
Everything, every idea that you want to work on, is worth it (no matter what anyone tells you), but you’ve got to work like you’ve got nothing to lose but everything at stake.

India. 2007. Ani.

XIII. You question yourself a lot in terms of ethics and principles so who, according to you, is the most honest/ principled photographer in India and why?
Let me first ask you an equally difficult question, “Who is the most honest/principled person in India and why?”
This question about honesty that you ask has obviously been derived from some of the things I’ve said in the past, but in different contexts, and I’m not sure if the two are related at all. When I talked about it, it was about doing work for the sake of just doing that work. This becomes more important to me in today’s context because of all the other things that we’ve already talked about in some of the questions and answers above: the rise in expectations, the competition, basically the rat race. As a young person myself who is trying to find his own way in this world that is changing so rapidly, this remains a very important concern to me. Everyone has to find their own answers, and their own definitions of such ideas and concepts, and they are not quantifiable or comparable.

XIV. What was your reaction when you turned the last page of Kundera’s ‘Life Is Elsewhere’?
I wish I remembered.
Images & Captions: Magnum
[Sohrab Hura is going to be launching his book ‘Life is Elsewhere’ at 7PM this evening, at the Sunaparanta Goa Centre for the Arts, Panjim.]

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