Sohrab Hura, Life is Elsewhere

JTF (just the facts)Self-published (under the imprint Ugly Dog press) in 2015 (here). Hardcover with dust jacket, 144 pages, with 84 black and white photographs. Includes multiple hand written texts by the artist. In an edition of 600 copies. (Spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Sohrab Hura is a young Indian photographer, from a small place called Chinsurah in West Bengal. Trained as an economist, he gradually turned to photography, shooting his immediate surroundings, family and close friends, simply “making photographs just for the love of making photographs”. Eventually, he made the leap to photography as his main occupation, and last year Hura became the latest Magnum Photos nominee. It’s been quite an artistic and personal journey in such a short period of time.

The photographs he took between 2005 and 2011 have become part of an inwardly felt project entitled Life is Elsewhere. This recently self-published photobook is a diary of Hura’s day to day existence at that time, combining photography and hand written captions in an attempt to bring order to the various fragments of his life. The book, which is dedicated to his mother, reads like a personal journey.

Hura begins with a bright, flash lit silhouette of a person in the middle of the street, seemingly glowing or emitting intense, almost blinding energy (can this be a reference to the photographer himself?); it is followed by a neatly handwritten introduction. From these notes, we learn about Hura’s complicated and emotionally challenging relationship with his mother – she screams, she beats him, and sometimes even disbelieves that he is her son. In 1999, she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, when Hura was just 17.

The first few years after the diagnosis were spent in the house, in nearly complete isolation from the outside world – from her perspective, out of paranoia, and from his, out of embarrassment. While the figure of Hura’s mother takes center stage in the narrative (faces and feet predominate), the book is really about Hura himself and his coming of age, capturing his inner world, connecting to life outside, and finding his own path. His grainy black and white photographs are full of energy, tentative expression, and simmering life.

The title of the book has been borrowed from Milan Kundera’s famous novel, and Life is Elsewhere masterfully  combines full bleed images, pictures in other sizes, and the photographer’s scrawled captions into one interwoven whole, all printed on matte surface paper; the position of the elements on the spread, and how they fall across the gutter, is also intelligently varied. We can feel the photographer’s strong presence throughout the narrative, as he leaves intimate comments under his images, sharing memories, doubts, and emotions, and introducing friends, strangers, and stolen moments.

The portraits of his mother (from smoking in bed to lost in thought) and the objects from the inner life of the house (his mother’s nightgown on the back of the door, the bare decaying walls, the numerous locks on the door, the pills) set the dark atmosphere of isolation and solitude that pervades the book. Yet in all these images, Hura photographs his mother with tenderness, love and respect, her slightly glassy eyed gaze the only hint of her condition.

His menacing looking dog Elsa provides Hura’s mother with another dose of unconditional love: “when ma is not doing too well it affects her the most.” She brings joy and life to an otherwise serenely depressing environment. One memorable image captures Elsa’s paw and mother’s foot next to each other in a beautiful still moment. (Hura’s self-published imprint is named Ugly Dog after Elsa, who has since died.)

Hura’s interior images are followed by blurred, ephemeral snapshots of empty streets, nights scenes, waves at the beach, curious stray cats and feral dogs. As he looks at the world around him, these fragments reflect the range of his emotions, his anger, fear, and hope in coming to terms with his mother’s disease, and a washed out spider or some flash whitened trees become a symbol for the intensity of his experience. As we flip through the pages, we encounter Hura’s friends as they run on the streets, kiss, laugh, dance, and look right back at us, their vitality a stark contrast to the subdued, somber mood of the house.

“The first blossom of the season… She is starting to do so much better”, Hura writes closer to the end. A final note from Hura’s mother reveals something very important and essential about her personality – she lists love, dignity and self respect as three things that matter to her the most. This letter is then paired with a quiet portrait – she stands in the doorway, for the first time looking straight at us, bringing a feeling of comfort and love. “Another thing stay in touch with your heart”, she writes to Hura, and we know that he will be fine. The last image in the book captures his mother and Elsa peacefully sleeping together in bed, snuggled under the blanket.

Life is Elsewhere is the intimate and often poetic journey of a son as he simultaneously puts together the conflicting pieces of his young life, realizes that his “mother had never stopped loving him”, and evolves as a photographer. Hura is now at work on the second part of the story (entitled Look It’s Getting Sunny Outside!!!) which carries forward to a time when his mother’s health has started to improve. Given the open thoughtfulness we’ve seen in his first photobook, the forthcoming sequel promises to be equally poignant.

Collector’s POV: Sohrab Hura is represented by Magnum Photos (here), where he became a nominee in 2014. His work has not yet found its way to the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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