by Manu SharmaJun 20, 2023
Running parallel to the India Art Fair, annually showcased at the NSIC Grounds in New Delhi, Sohrab Hura presented an exhibition titled Half-Moving at Offset Projects' temporary studio space. The exhibition presented four projects, three of which are responsible for having cultivated a memorable oeuvre for the photographer, and are an extension of his retrospective profile at the Oberhausen Short Film Festival, presented in 2022 with the same title. Revisiting his works, through this exhibition, the photographer introspects on his journey as a practitioner, his engagement with storytelling, iterative realities, and a falsified image form.
The exhibition is introduced through his most recent work The Coast (2020), in a journey that traces backwards into the origins of Hura’s excursions into the moving image format. Ironically through a misinterpreted assignment, that resulted in his short documentary Pati (2010). In a conversation with STIR, the photographer speaks about his experimentations that involve introducing movement into his work, the inherent fallacies within the unshakable interpretation of photographs as documents, and the practice of ‘re-looking.’
His 2020 short film, The Coast attempts to delineate tension between ‘masks’ and reality, personified by the coastline as “a breaking point, shifting borders, boundaries, skin,” according to the artist. The film shot on the coasts of Tamil Nadu, bears witness to celebrations of a religious festival, forming the backdrop of his work. This can be gleaned from Hindu symbols, veiled instances of ritual on land and the cleansing yet calamitous potential of water. The film takes a surreal tone in its intensification where the moving image slows down.
Hura notes, “The dominant propaganda is happening through the benign use of images, not through events that draw attention but these undercurrents and peripheral or even normalised sequence of images. Using that in work would have been quite difficult for me, if I was trying to explore the workings of the system. For me, one of the landscapes like religion was easier to ‘visibilise’ and not just look at.”
Interestingly, in our conversation Hura speaks about the importance of “introducing doubt” into his work. This can be seen as a worthy corollary to the verbalisation of ‘belief,’ a significant marker within the cultural landscape—whether through the lens of religion, institution, politics or the mundane, all seemingly interchangeable in the national imagination. The ‘image’ becomes a mask in Hura’s eyes, a projection or perhaps a stand-in, where ‘what appears’ is something other than ‘what is.’ Towards the climax of the film, to the effects of psycho-spiritual intensification (with its unsettling and increasingly tense ambient score), the sea crashes against the grainy, ecstatic bodies, in a symbolic shedding of artifice.
Speaking to the element of 'fiction' and if it informs his practice, Hura says, “Photography has this burden that no matter how much we know that it can be fiction, our impulsive reaction is that of believing. It’s a document. Somehow, it’s all a bit too ingrained. I am interested in image systems, which are in some ways generating narratives about whether something is truth, fiction or within a range, rather than a binary. Today we are sceptical of everything, but we always lean towards something more than the other.”
The Coast is a particularly abstract and symbolic work, where de-contextualisation seems to feed Hura’s vision, compared to the other (older) films in the exhibition which seek to guide the viewer through a narrative voice (usually his own). Where voice is absent in the 2020 work, the other works often seek to question the intention, agency and singularity of authorship, in India as well as globally, as image-manipulation often informs (politically attributed) narratives and is a manifestation of control and power. Here, Hura expands on metaphors that have previously been explored within his extended body of work.
Also presented in the exhibition is a version of The Lost Head and the Bird (2016-19), a mediation into the schizophrenic nature of media/ image landscape and the 'diffusion' of truth through multiple iterations. The work presents a short story, told 12 times through subtly shifting accounts with a diptych of photographs, where the pairings are never fixed, succeeded by an information vortex, produced by compiling mass-forwarded WhatsApp photos and videos staging violence.
Propelling still photographs into motion, Hura speaks about how he has been experimenting with frame rates and photographs to make moving image work, which allows him to revisit previous projects—each medium taking a different register.
Reframing the frame rate allows, perhaps, a deeper exploration into the static yet iterative nature of photography. He speaks about the short film Bittersweet (2019), also shown here, a mediation on a ten-year period of documenting his intimate family space, with the backdrop of his mother’s onset of acute paranoid schizophrenia. Through photographs as moving images, the Indian artist’s eye pierces the image, closely observing daily life through his mother’s relationship with her dog, Elsa, along with her habits, routines, and restlessness. The photographer mentions that while a lot of photographers consider this work to be a ‘slideshow’ of sorts, he rather sees it as a “moving image at that frame rate.”
Throughout the conversation, Hura is careful in attributing fixed meanings to his work. Where he circles around the themes presented, but does not muddle his intentions. He notes that the context around his work is always shifting, “In the end it’s about projection, belief and doubt.”