“Photography was the last thing on my mind when I was growing up. My mother had fallen sick and my father gave me a camera as a coping mechanism. I guess that is my story. It was a catharsis for me, and in the beginning making pictures—and the possibility of being able to touch a stranger emotionally or intellectually with those pictures—is where I felt catharsis lay.” Delhi-based 39-year-old Indian photographer Sohrab Hura is recalling the early impulses he felt towards image-making, and realizing how far he was back then from understanding how it would go on to shape his whole future. He was just a kid with a camera and some issues to work through, and it stayed that way until he began to show some of his work to friends and family when he was older.
“After that, people started sharing their own stories of illness among families and friends with me,” he says, “and it made it a lot easier for me to talk about my own relationship with mental health. In the beginning, I would be quite embarrassed to talk about it and I felt a sense of shame but the more people shared their own lives with me, the more it normalized things for me as well. I realized that photography was only one of many ways to open up conversation. We need to unpack constantly in our lives. I think that starting point makes it impossible for me to make any work that hasn’t at least some way, no matter how small, allowed me to locate myself within it. This ricocheting back and forth between my own life and the world outside has made me more interested in systems rather than isolated points within it.”
Hura is celebrated with a major exhibition at Huis Marseille in Amsterdam this fall. When I ask him why it’s titled Spill, he says, “I’ll try to answer with this analogy. When I’m filling up a bucket of water and some drops are splashing out of it, those splashes somehow make me more aware of the bucket even though they lie outside of it. Is the bucket empty? Is it full? Is it small? Or big? Maybe my sense of time is also affected by it. Depending on how slowly or quickly the bucket fills up with water, a relationship between time and the bucket is also formed, and until I turn on the tap, the bucket is just a bucket. Now if I could relate this to my work process, I guess it’s about locating myself both within and outside the bucket. It is about photography being uncontained and anchored at the same time. I guess in some ways the exhibition is more about the momentum and velocities in different works and the interconnectedness that they bring to each other because of the swish and swirl going on inside the bucket. Even the drops of water that have splashed outside have come from the bucket.” It’s an analogy that conjures a flood of a thousand images—so very Hura, whose practice might aptly be described as abundant and cumulative, one drop of an idea always leading to the next.
Tracing back across 15 years of Hura’s career, several bodies of work from Hura’s oeuvre are on view in the show. This includes one of his earliest bodies of work Life Is Elsewhere—a searing, black and white document reflecting on his mother’s diagnosis of an acute case of Paranoid Schizophrenia. The pictures in it depict fragments from home, family pets, moments from his travels, his mother’s searching gaze, and in amongst all of that, thoughts and feelings scrawled down on paper are scanned and interspersed.
Explaining where the project came from, Hura takes us back to 2005. “I was making work around unemployment and other issues in rural India, but it had become quite hard for me to keep photographing people in distress and then to go back home to my own safe space over and over again. I had also started to feel that no matter how responsible I had tried to be while photographing them, in the end they were not able to tell me what they thought of the photographs that I had made of them, they were not able to tell me if they did not like it, and they were not able to really hold me accountable.” So he began to look inwards, he says, and closer to home—something he’d avoided thus far. There were still ethical lines to consider photographing his family, but at least he could engage in conversation with them. And his mum responding to the pictures he took of her with nothing but love and understanding propelled him forward.
Life Is Elsewhere was Hura’s first big learning curve as a photographer. He cringes at the photobook he made a bit now, he says, but looking back, it still marks a really formative shift in how he thought about making work. “I remember at some point that I had started to not be happy with it,” he says. “It was meant to be an autobiographical journal, made in a stream of consciousness kind of way, but somewhere along the way I had become quite conscious of it. I mean, I knew what kind of a picture I needed to make to have a specific effect, but that contradicted the original motivation behind why I was making those photos. Honesty felt extremely important to me and I felt that my work wasn’t. Life Is Elsewhere felt like a work where I had been trying to escape for a long time, while Look It’s Getting Sunny Outside!!! made me feel like I was confronting that same space that I had been trying to escape all my life. Actually, Look It’s Getting Sunny Outside!!! is the work closest to my heart.” This project Hura speaks about deals with similar themes, but this one was born from his mother’s condition improving. That fact alone meant he spent more time at home taking pictures—color this time—and part of it traced his mother’s relationship with her dog, Elsa, who sadly died a few years back.
Other projects included in the exhibition are Snow and The Song Of Sparrows In A Hundred Days Of Summer. One, shot in Kashmir—a region in the north, subject to violent conflict between India, Pakistan and later China since the decolonization of British India in 1947—is full of crisp, bright images, while the other, made in Pati, one of the hottest regions of the country, is cast in warm and balmy light. Hura says that the symbolism of the seasons are like exit points for these two works. “In this part of the world we swing from one extreme season to another. In Snow, the passage of the winter season uncovers certain realities for me that I had once been in denial of. This denial is primarily of identity. I’m an Indian, but I’m also an outsider in that area. In all the noise here in India, where almost everyone has an opinion on Kashmir and there is no acknowledgment of the call for autonomy coming from within Kashmir, snow in these photographs is a metaphor for the mask of denial that melts away from my face. The passage of the seasons is an acknowledgment of listening to something that has been deliberately drowned out in the noise around nationalism and colonization for many decades.
In The Song Of Sparrows, meanwhile, Hura makes photographs each year in Pati, during the long wait before the monsoon season. Time is still in these pictures, static, hot and cumbersome. Everyone waits for the rain in Pati, they depend on it, and Hura wanted to use the aesthetics of that slow heat to show how drawn out that wait can be. “In many ways I think the thread of those two seasons have helped me to negotiate the noise that surrounds both those landscapes.” Several videos are also on view throughout the exhibition, including a moving image piece about Pati, as well as The Lost Head & The Bird (2016-2019)—a moving image piece blending fact and fiction to conjure a post-truth world.
Hura’s style has cherry picked from different traditions over the years, but he doesn’t think about genres all that much these days, he says. “My use of different forms and approaches came about out of frustration with the limitations that come with working with any one of them alone,” he explains. “When I started, I would be very conscious of this separation between the documentary and whatever that was not, but today I think what leads me isn’t an idea of genre. If I was to draw out a range between complete information and complete obfuscation, I think infinite possibilities of works arising out of blending between the two might exist. Documentary can still be my method of making pictures, but I might make the edit completely fictional. In my book The Coast I had to make fiction look like documentary and documentary like fiction because doubt was really important to instigate in the viewer.”
The Coast is another, more recent, project included in the exhibition, and his relationship with color seems to have intensified with these images—like when you look at them you can almost feel that the air is thick. “The Coast is a metaphor for a tipping point. It’s skin,” Hura says. “I remember that scene from the film Alien, where this parasite bursts out of the host’s body and it transforms into something else. In a sense, The Coast is about that beast of Indian contemporary society that is violently trying to burst out of its own skin. The book looks at the relationship between power and the systems in which narratives are made, stories are told and histories are written.” In response to the incredibly fraught recent history of India’s social and political landscape, the project was inspired by imagery Hura was seeing on social media—all about luring the viewer into an increasingly absurd space.
Hura is looking forward to seeing what viewers make of the Huis Marseille show, especially because it’s a space of such character. “There is a specific sequence to the rooms embodying the different works and each room has been designed for the different spatial experience,” he says. “When it comes to exhibitions I always want to try and affect the movement of the visitor. How do I make someone come closer, how do I make that person step away? How do I make the visitor crisscross across the room rather than simply move along the walls?” Given the specific architecture of the museum, which, in typically Dutch fashion, is narrow and tall with multiple levels, he’s designed the exhibition to be similar to an accordion book, he says, each little space unfolding into the next, just as if you were turning a page.
Editor’s note: Hura’s exhibition Spill is on view at Huis Marseille in Amsterdam until the 5th of December 2021.