The fine beauty of a struggle

The fine beauty of a struggle

News often travels at the speed of light in the pulsating photographers’ community in India. Therefore, when photographer Sohrab Hura, 32, was nominated to Magnum, it created quite a buzz. He was, after all, the first in 37 years after Raghu Rai to be invited to be part of this elite photographer’s clique.

“Hura who?” many wondered. Hura, by his own admission, lives in a bubble. But his name did ring a bell. Head tonsured, he would often appear at photo-events flummoxing photographers with his searching queries, put in his characteristic long-winded way.
But his work? I tried Google. No. Nothing. Where was his website? Though famous, Hura does not have what the photographers call ‘web presence’. His work barely shows up on Google.

Hura is something of an antediluvian. He plays the part of the archetypal artist toiling away in isolation, often in privation but indifferent to the fame his work begets him. “I don’t like to get too comfortable. If I get too comfortable, I can’t perform. People struggle for many decades before they get recognition. I think there is something beautiful in it. I think it’s important to be struggling,” he says.

Perhaps that’s why he persists in using the film camera, wallowing in what Raghu Rai calls ‘nostalgia’, even though almost all photographers the world over turned a corner with digital, almost a decade ago.

And as for the Magnum nomination, Hura says it came with a sense of sadness, “I was incredibly  happy in making my work in isolation and anonymity. It’s like being on a beautiful island and then seeing a boatload of people coming and now you have to share the island with them,” he says.

If there was ever a man with more contempt for fame, it was Hura, you would think. But Hura is not exactly a guy living under a rock as he would have you believe. He is more clued in to the ways of the world, than he lets on. He is the sort of guy who aims for success, but is extremely bashful when he achieves it. For one, he does not miss sending his photos for any major photography awards there are. (The magnum nomination came about when Hura first applied for it).

He even sent his Kumbh Mela photos for the World Press Photo Awards and when his mentor, photographer Swapan Parekh — who was one of the judges that year — complained that all Indian photographers sent Kumb Mela photos, Hura was embarrassed.

The truth is, that while other photographers were busy making a living — optimising their websites and cultivating clients — Hura obsessed himself with photography for the love of it. “I don’t have much money of my own but I am lucky I don’t come from a place where I have to look after my parents. I am not married. I have no kids. I am taking advantage of all this,” he says.

While he assiduously kept his work away from  the hoi polloi, he has had it reviewed by many important photographers across the world, whose names he spills out casually during the conversation.

It is hard not to be infected by Hura’s sense of dedication. Impressed with it, photographers have gone to extraordinary lengths to help him. For example, fascinated with Hura’s work, a Paris-based photographer sent him her digital camera all the way from France for his project. 

One could loosely classify Hura’s work into two categories. The social documentaries and the biographical. Pati is his self-funded documentation of a sun-beaten village in Madhya Pradesh, where Hura spends up to 10 days at a time documenting the villagers living their hard life.

But it is perhaps Hura’s biographical work that has won him all the acclaim. Life is Elsewhere is his recently concluded series where he documented, among other things, his dog and his mother — undergoing treatment for schizophrenia. The project culminated in another series, Look, its Getting Sunny Outside — when his mother got a little better.

One is on slippery grounds reviewing Hura’s personal work, shot mostly in black and white. Unlike the photos of say photographers like Steve McCurry, where the photography aesthetics can be easily applied, Hura makes it difficult with his blurry, vague and often washed out photos.

There is a danger always of eulogising anything we don’t understand, as art or trashing it as junk. You expose yourself as a pretender or a philistine respectively.

So I choose the easy way out and ask Hura, as he shows his work on his laptop, to explain some of his blurry black and white photos. “I try to capture emotions and feelings. I am not interested so much in the aesthetics of it,” he explains.

With his work offering no ready conclusions — perhaps precisely something Hura wants — it’s, maybe, safe to rely on the collective wisdom of the Magnum photographers who have appropriated Hura as their own.

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