Stormy Night, Laos. 2011
Stormy Night, Laos, 2011 by Sohrab Hura

Last month, when kudos started pouring in for Delhi-based Sohrab Hura after he was nominated to Magnum, the prestigious, international photographic collective, the best tribute came from his mother. A decade ago, Hura had seen Magnum Magnum, a book on the collective’s photographers (publisher Thames & Hudson) at a Gurgaon bookshop. “I had told my mother I wished to be featured in the book some day,” reveals Hura, 32. “I did not know it then but she picked it up later, at a princely price of Rs 2,000. And when she heard about my nomineeship to Magnum, she presented me with the book.”

In a way, there was a certain pathos connected with her act of admiration for it was his mother’s paranoid schizophrenia that had first steered Hura towards a career in photography and later, the honour of being only the second Indian to be invited to join Magnum, 37 years after acclaimed photographer Raghu Rai. In 2001, his mother was very unwell and it had started to affect him. It was then that his father, a Merchant Navy officer, decided to divert his mind. “He bought me a camera and sent me to Ladakh. Soon I was making beautiful pictures of sunsets. It was all very innocent and I was happy,” remembers Hura, an alumnus of the Doon School, Dehradun.

But by 2005, he was a more regular photographer, saving up for film and prints. “My work now was more focused. I gradually started getting the feeling that this was what I was made for, it was my calling.” He was studying Developmental Economics at the prestigious Delhi Schol of Economics and had planned to do a doctorate in the subject. Suddenly it became difficult to explain to his parents this new-found passion for photography. “I needed it (photography) more and more.”

At this stage in this profession, what would he say is the objective of photography? “If you had asked me this question five years ago, I would have had a response. Today, I don’t think much about it,” says Hura. Back then, he says, photography was controlling him. But now, “I don’t want it to become a slave to it.” Today, he looks at it as just another medium. “If I had got a chance, I could have done it through film or words as well. Now it is just a tool which I can use to express myself confidently.”

New Delhi based documentary photographer Sanjay Austa, who had started off as a journalist, recently interviewed Hura for a publication. “He seems somewhat as abstract as his autobiographical work,” is his observation. “He is long-winded but tries hard to explain his complex thoughts . He is passionate about what he does but questions it all the time. He says he is obsessed with his passion  but also portrays himself as a lackadaisical person who keeps dropping his cameras.”

SOHRAB by Si Embun
Sohrab Hura by Si Embun

Hura first started covering the lives of the underprivileged. Pati, his extensive photographic report of the effect of India’s economic boom in the village of the same name in Madhya Pradesh, is hailed as a classic in Indian photojournalism. The series immediately brought him to the notice of the international community of photographers. Later he started veering towards personal photography. Among his notable projects were Life is Elsewhere, which focused on his ailing mother. He followed this up with Look, It’s Getting Sunny Outside!!! when she began improving. His current project, The Song of Sparrows in a Hundred Days of Summer, focuses on something intangible – heat in an Indian village.

His disillusionment with photojournalism set in around a decade ago and was crystallised in 2006, while covering starvations deaths in Shivpur village in Uttar Pradesh. “It was around the time of the India Shining campaign,” recalls Hura. “Nobody was interested in humanistic photography, there was no sense of responsibility. I felt stupid. All around me other people were taking photos for the sense of taking photos. It was very jarring. I was told that I had to be tough. But I am not tough.”

Hura likes to keep a low-profile and as it often happens in such cases, is sometimes considered to be snobbish. A Mumbai-based photographer who has interacted occasionally with him, calls Hura secrective. But photographer Anshika Varma, who has known Hura for a long time and has followed his work in great detail, has a very different take. She calls him “extremely sensitive to people and the world around him. He is absolutely loving towards animals and in fact one of the reasons how we became friends was because he helped me take care of my when he was pretty ill. My mother initially thought he was somebody studying to be a vet who was also keen in photography.”

Varma says his nomination is a “moment of pride for the fraternity’” and adds, “It is a great motivator for a lot of us to follow our hearts and carve our own paths within photography and not be dictated by the economics of it, to find our own voice within photography.” Austa agrees with Varma about the inspiration part: “I think it is huge both for the photographer and for the community. The fact that Hura is barely 32 is encouraging for the new generation of photographers.”

Some Indian photographers feel that Hura’s nomination discerns a shift in Magnum’s membership profile. Earlier the agency was known mainly for its documentary photographers and photojournalists. Photography legends like W. Eugene Smith, Elliott Erwitt, Steve McCurry, Abbas, Eve Arnold and Bruce Davidson come immediately to mind. But now, as  Hura’s example shows, it has also started embracing art and personal photographers into its select fold. “The fact that  so many photojournalists in their 40’s and 50’s  with a huge body of work behind them were overlooked in nominating Hura is itself a big shift,” says a Bangalore-based photographer. “I would have thought someone like Pablo Bartholomew, Arko Datta or Prashant Panjiar, who have put in three-four decades in photography, would be nominated. So this was a surprise  for me.”

Hura was nominated by Magnum member Olivia Arthur. Initially, he had to submit 60 of his photographs. This was followed by a book dummy, video and more images that showed how his photography had changed over the years. Hura will be a Nominee for two years. A favourable review at the end of the period will entitle him to become a full-fledged Associate of Magnum Photos, co-founded by Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1947.

Apart from the legendary French photojournalist, Hura counts Raghu Rai and Raghubir Singh among his early influences. Among contemporary Indian photographers, he likes the work of Dayanita Singh and Swapan Parekh. But unlike many modern photographers, he shuns the limelight, and says he becomes uncomfortable when he feels a sense of comfort creeping up. “If I become comfortable, I will become numb,” he says.

“To be honest, I am always broke. I don’t have many belongings. I never go out. But I need to be vulnerable,” he elaborates. But he is confident that he is on the right track. “It is all about your state of being and what you want. If you want something badly, you always get it.”

That could perhaps include being featured in the next edition of Magnum Magnum.