Sohrab Hura, The Coast

JTF (just the facts): Self-published (under the imprint Ugly Dog Press) in April 2019 (here). Hardcover, 224 pages, with 199 color photographs. Includes multiple texts by the artist. In an edition of 1200 and 200 personal copies. Edited and designed by Sohrab Hura. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The Indian photographer Sohrab Hura first got my attention with his intimate and poetic photobook Life is Elsewhere (reviewed here). It was the first part of a wider trilogy entitled Sweet Life, which sensitively documented the life of his mother who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when the artist was a teenager. Hura, who became an associate with Magnum Photos in 2018, has also been investigating other subjects, including local Indian communities, employment issues in rural India, and, in the past few years, the absurdity of political life in India.

Hura’s most recent photobook, The Coast, is part of a larger project The Lost Head and the Bird, which explores the frightening post-truth world, with a focus on the socio-political environment in India. As the country has gradually slipped into growing polarization and violence, Hura noticed that his parents were becoming victims of disinformation. He felt the need to express his observations and unease through his own visual language, and the project was first released as a short film (which in addition to Hura’s photographs, also uses an archive of found and researched images). The photobook is its most recent iteration, and while the film and the book use different approaches, they both explore storytelling through visual elements.

The book has a striking cover: a pair of eyes looking sideways and an open mouth appear against an extremely dark background while a touch of a red adds an element of a creepy horror (the image is actually a man wearing a mask during a religious festival). The title of the book and artist’s name are printed in bright yellow, creating a strong contrast. 

The Coast opens with a short story – it centers on Madhu, a woman who has lost her head, quite literally. It was apparently stolen by her obsessive lover, and a fortune-teller had actually warned her that this might happen. The tale also includes the character of an idiot photographer (possibly Hura himself), who heard about Madhu and came from the nearby city of Chennai to take photos of her and “all the other wonderful and vicious things he sees along the coastline.”

This absurd story of a headless woman repeats itself in the book in 12 iterations. In each version, Hura changes just a few words, shifting the meaning and the tone of the preceding story (in the book, these specific parts are highlighted in yellow): frantically to surprisingly, obsessive to distraught, money to gift, warned to advised, etc. With each retelling of the story, he tones down the violence and the empathy shifts away from Madhu, gradually pushing the blame from Madhu’s miseries away from others and toward her. Hura notes, that “Just like with the images, each story forms a slightly different meaning in every subsequent reading and it becomes one of a dozen different truths.” Clearly, the shifting line between various versions of reality has been made deliberately muddy. 

The story sets the atmosphere for sequences of photographs taken during trips to different points along the Indian coast. The images are printed full bleed with just a narrow slice of white space near the gutter, creating an immersive visual flow. One of the images near the beginning of the book captures a young couple passionately kissing in bed; it is paired with an image of a small green bird perched on an outstretched finger, shot against a bright yellow background. In the next spread, the image of a kissing couple is now paired with a photo of a cat with a brutally scratched nose. And the spread after that replaces kissing couple with a barefoot man with a knife walking in the darkness, his feet and arms covered in blood. Hura re-uses the same images repeatedly, but their meaning keeps evolving as he alters their context and the nearby juxtapositions. These images, violent and wild, are invasively flash-lit shots with bright and vivid colors, taking us on almost hallucinogenic trip, and the continuous reordering of the repeating images puts our stable perception of reality and fiction into question, blurring the lines even further.

In another sequence, there is a portrait of a man with blood running down his face, with a photo on the left capturing a woman looking in the mirror in horror. The meaning shifts as the following spread replaces the woman with a shot of an orange mass that looks alive with plastic eyes and a leaf as a mouth. These constant negotiations between pictures and their apparent truths create excitement and confusing movement, also exposing the way propaganda operates in the society – depending on who is arranging the images, we can come to surprisingly different conclusions.

Hura consistently uses the country’s physical coastline as a metaphor; the coast also refers to the margin, the edge, the boundary, not only physical but also psychological. That’s what we see in his photographs: a girl in a polka dot dress making soap bubbles, a portrait of a man with a foggy left eye, a corner flooded by rats, a fish in water, boys playing/fighting outside, a close up of a mouth, a crowd of people dancing, religious festival celebrations – these images all express emotional energy: anger, joy, confusion, rage, and countless others. The visual narrative builds up and culminates where land and sea meet. People walk toward the water, take a dip, frolic in the waves, and wash their bodies, their facial expressions and body language showing a sense of joy and relief, as if they have found the comfort to be themselves out on the edges.

The Coast boldly reflects on our current state of the world, where the overwhelming stream of information makes it difficult to distinguish between reality, fabrication, and the oddly surreal in between. In his work, Hura calls for a reevaluation of how we consider and observe the world around us. As a photobook, The Coast is an intelligent and thoughtfully produced object, and stands out as one of the strongest and exciting photobooks published so far this year.

Collector’s POV: Sohrab Hura is represented by Magnum Photos (here), where he became a nominee in 2014 and an associate in 2018. 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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