Please enjoy a guest post by our lovely volunteer, Artist Erika Morillo:
Making work about family is complicated, and in Sohrab Hura’s two books Life is elsewhere and It’s getting sunny outside, he gives us a visceral look into his own. At face value, both books (which were published three years apart) might seem like a progression from darkness to light, a transitioning out of dysfunction, but upon closer inspection, we familiarize ourselves with Hura’s penchant for paradoxes.
Comprised of writing and black and white photographs, Life is elsewhere inspects Hura’s surroundings and relationships, most prominently the relationship with his mother, who suffers from severe mental illness, which turns her abusive behaviors towards him. Instead of recoiling, he stays. He writes about the pain and turns his gaze towards her, photographing the ripples of her mental state, an emotional black hole of hospital gowns, decaying walls, and locked doors. We see glimpses of the outside world, where lone horses stand in vast fields at night and individuals incinerated by light become faceless against a black landscape.
The middle of the book provides a respite from this familial chaos. An image of a boat and the presence of the sea signal a point of departure from life at home. Schools of fish, joyful women splashing in the water and encounters with friends speak to the expansion of his world and desire to find community. When taken as diptychs, the spreads of man-swan, hand-reptile, woman-cat feel like a Kafkaesque desire for transformation or looking at animals for answers. His images evoke a sense of longing, as he becomes a voyeur of physical affection, of his friends’ romantic pursuits, of coupling reptiles and most poignantly, of his mom’s affection towards her dog Elsa.
His second book, It’s getting sunny outside, is in direct dialog with the first one. The moths on the previous cover are now cherry blossoms that house a collection of color images. The image of a hospital gown has now been replaced with a yellow dress; his mother is out of bed, her hair brushed and toenails painted. Things seem to be getting better. But as his mother’s mental health improves her dog’s health declines. Elsa becomes the protagonist of the book and his mother, her caretaker.
Life is elsewhere gave us the foundation to understand that on this second book, Elsa becomes a canvas unto which Hura starts to project the intricacy of his relationship with his mother. In the first book, he conveys his imprisonment more literally, through candid writing and documentary photos of heavily locked doors, dirty walls and pills at hand; But here, through Elsa;, he finds abstraction. These saturated images of life at home feel darker than his black and white photos and say more about his own feelings than those of Elsa. There are photos of gutted dogs lying lifeless, Elsa looking longingly at a bird and a photo of him and Elsa sitting next to each other in bed, taken by his mother, cements the notion that in this work, he and Elsa are emotional equals, two children made to carry the same heavy burden.
In It’s getting sunny outside there are no breathers, no seaside escape, just a photographer’s relentless gaze at his inner turmoil, conveyed in the most refined and contradictory of ways. Its paradoxes evoke important questions: has being a caretaker for Elsa helped the mother heal, distracted her from her demons? Is Hura’s emphasis on Elsa jealousy or projection? Has Hura come to terms with his upbringing? The work does not provide these answers, it resists resolution, and by making us sit with this complexity, it yields a deeper understanding of the notion of family.
Born and raised in Dominican Republic, Erika Morillo is a freelance documentary photographer and artist based in New York City. She studied clinical psychology and sociology, which influenced her to photograph as a way to understand her family dynamics and the social environment she inhabits. Her work focuses on the issues of family, inner city life and the finding of identity. Her photographs have been published and exhibited nationally and internationally. She lives in Manhattan with her son Amaru.