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Book of the Week: Selected by Owen Kobasz

Book Of The Week The Coast Photographs and Text by Sohrab Hura Reviewed by Owen Kobasz The Coast opens with an absurd short story that leads into a sequence of images taken along the Indian coastline. While the photographs are made in real situations, the continuous removal and addition of context manipulates the line between what is a fact and what is not, in a way not unlike how new realities are increasingly being engineered today.
The Coast. By Sohrab Hura.
The Coast 
Photographs and Text by Sohrab Hura

Ugly Dog, New Dehli, India, 2019.
224 pp., color illustrations, 6¾x9". In English.

“The sound of the cage crashing to the ground tore through the house. The crow had escaped. A light came on, and on the bed Madhu tottered from left to right, trying to find her head. Her hands clasped at the smooth top of her torso, her fingers feeling for any trace of a stump of her head, before falling still for a moment and then again repeating the motion, frantically… Even now she kept forgetting that she did not have a head.”

So begins Sohrab Hura’s fourth book, The Coast. This is the first part of The Lost Head and The Bird, the short story with which the book opens. There are twelve stories in total, all of which are, in a way, the same, absurd, story. Each iteration, however, slightly tweaks the text of the previous, swapping just a few words at a time, to create a new, parallel narrative.

The Coast. By Sohrab Hura.
In the first, Madhu’s obsessive lover steals her head; in the last her distraught lover merely borrows her head. The roles of the other characters, a fortuneteller and a photographer (Hura), shift in a similar way, so that, by the final story, the only one responsible for Madhu’s misfortunes is Madhu herself. By presenting these alternate narratives, Hura highlights how the phrasing of events leads to the ‘engineering of realities’.

The following photographs come as an assault to the senses. The pages are filled with images, leaving no negative space, no time to catch your breath. Each image appears twice, so that after turning the page it repeats itself in the next spread. Sequencing the book in this way links the photos together, binding them to their neighbors in constant forward motion, building energy.

Sohrab Hura's photographs are flash heavy, unsettling, and absurd. A man’s head, sitting on a silver platter along side bright red fruit in the corner of a restaurant. In another, three boys are frozen in time. One wears a batman swimsuit and holds a chunk of cement, preparing to strike another, who is sitting on the ground with a stoic expression. A woman sheds a tear on the adjacent page. Others are gorier: thick, red blood runs down the page, dripping from a large knife onto bare feet.

The Coast. By Sohrab Hura.

“What I was trying to photograph was a pulse of the world that I was living in, here in India. That was something I could only allude to and not straitjacket down into something more definitive. Giving a straightforward explanation of the project would have removed all other possible entry points into the work. That would have negated everything the work is trying to do in the first place, which is to take the audience to a place out of doubt, because that is the situation today – we don’t know what to believe or not.”
— Sohrab Hura
The Coast. By Sohrab Hura.
Photographing the beating pulse of a nation can only be done through metaphor. The bloody, violent scenes in The Coast describe an impression of India’s recent increase in violence. Photos like the boy solemnly holding the cement to strike his friend point to the normalization of it, a terrifying idea. Other images, however, are beautiful and life-affirming.

One reoccurring theme throughout The Coast is heads. First in the story about Madhu, the headless girl, and then in the photographs people appear without heads, without bodies, or with their heads obscured or distorted. Someone’s body sitting on a light blue bed appears headless, with their left arm reaching to where their head should be. In another, a man’s head is peeking out from under a woman’s arm. His head seems disembodied, as though she is carrying it around as an accessory. Or the image of a man peaking through a fish tank; the tank distorts his face into that of a curious cyclops. Through his photographs, Hura seems to be pointing to a cause of the increased violence, namely a confusion of identity among the Indian people. People without heads, or faces, lack the most basic part of individual identity, and, instead get caught up in a great, faceless mass.

The Coast. By Sohrab Hura.
The final images show people wading into the Arabian Sea. Sohrab Hura describes the scene, “These images in the sea have been made over the years on a specific beach in Tamil Nadu, where every year – during a religious festival – people masquerade as different characters depending on what they have prayed for. They get into a trancelike frenzy in worship and they are finally carried to the sea to wash themselves of their masquerade, much like cleansing themselves of their sins.”

Following the intense imagery that came before, this section of the book offers a breath of relief. The people descend towards the dark water and dive into the sea in a place that seems separate from heaven and earth alike. The energy built up in the book before this point is finally released. According to Hura, “This stepping into the sea is a sort of a new beginning for the people, a sort of a shedding of that mask. In its metaphors, the book ends with a little more relief – one could even say hope”. And then it is just water. Bubbly, brown waves fade into the night sky; the horizon line is lost to a flash. Here, water and darkness blend into the dark abyss of the unknown.

The Coast. By Sohrab Hura.
Owen Kobasz edits the blog & newsletter at photo-eye. He holds a BA in the liberal arts from St. John's College and takes photos in his free time.