What to say about Sohrab Hura‘s The Coast: Twelve Parallel Short Stories

Well, it was, I believe, the July 2019 photobook-of-the-month from the excellent Charcoal Book Club, and if I recall, it got a bunch of press, not all of it entirely positive, around its release. It’s made some best of lists for 2019, and, in fact, it won the 2019 Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Photo Book of the Year award.

So… If I say “it’s not really my cup of tea” right off the bat, well, it’s not, really, but insofar as The Coast is Hura’s fourth book, and insofar as Hura is an associate Magnum photographer, and given the various awards noted above, your idea of good tea is probably different from mine

Jorg Colberg describes Hura’s work in The Coast as “surrealist,” and I would agree. Now. While I was never much of a Dali fan, I have deep appreciation for Magritte, and, as far as surrealism goes, I prefer my chance encounters to be more sewing machine-and-umbrella than straight-razor-and-eyeball. And Hura is definitely more of the eyeball-slicing variety.

Colberg also compares Hura’s Coast to Feng Li’s White Night and comes down on the side of Hura for his lack of humor. Here, Colberg and I part ways. I gave White Night 4 stars in my review, and while I don’t give The Coast a rating at all, if I did, it would be lower. The work style is similar: hypercolor digital and hot flash, but where Feng’s color is a bit green and squeamish, Hura’s is red/orange and lurid. Part of it is location: Feng is in China, Hura in India; part of it is Hura’s project (slightly more on that below).

Hura’s work is sometimes almost interesting, but in many ways seems to rely on some unfortunate cliches and stereotypes. I can’t/won’t really go into it, and you’ll know it when you see it (or not). And Hura is Indian himself, so if what I see is stereotypes, well, there’s a reason we have stereotypes: they’re sometimes true and useful. Still. How many pictures of prostitutes with dirty hands and feet do we need? How many pleading/ecstatic Hijra with smeared makeup, crying, laughing, stoned out of their gourds?

The most interesting thing about the book is the layout: each photograph appears twice, paired with two different pictures in a AB CB CD ED EF GF GH IH IJ pattern. This is an interesting way of reinforcing images and forcing shifting readings, and it points to what Hura claims as his project: disinformation and truthiness in the present age (late twenty-teens); how slight changes in context force new meanings.

Which reminds me: the “twelve parallel short stories.”

The Coast opens with an absurdist short story. I won’t go into it, but Dali would approve. At the end of the book, Hura repeats the story 11 times, with a word or three changed (and highlighted in yellow) in each version, thus shifting the blame, turning the narrative.* It’s sort of the same thing that happens with the pictures, sort of, and I didn’t get much out of it, really.

Once again, I’m thankful for the Charcoal Book Club. I have a signed copy of The Coast thanks to them, and if not for them, I wouldn’t have a copy of The Coast at all. I wasn’t grabbed when I first read Colberg’s review, and cringed when I got the notification that it would be the book-of-the-month. It’s just not a book for me.


Magnum have an interview with Hura that’s worth a read, and I’m sure this work appeals to many. I’m glad it’s out there. It’s just not for me and I’ll probably end up selling my copy.

*I initially wrote “*yawn” here, but took it out in the interest of professionalism.

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  1. Hello James,
    I’ve thought about joining the Charcoal Book Club on a number of occasions but haven’t for some of the reasons you mention above. How do you feel when your monthly $60 has been spent on something like this that you don’t like. Sometime it’ll work in your favour and you’ll get an unexpected treat, but it does seem like quite a (monthly) gamble…

    1. Hey Barnaby,

      Let’s see. I’ve been with Charcoal almost since the beginning. In a few days, I’ll receive my 25th book from them.
      I’ve spent roughly $1600 on a 3 month and two 12 month subscriptions. It’s been quite expensive, BUT worth it, I think.

      Of the 25 books, I’ve only really disliked this one. There are a couple of others I’ll happily sell off. Overall, I’d say it’s roughly 4/5ths keeper rate. Honestly, that’s at least as good, if not better, than my regular book-buying rate. I have about 300 photobooks (plus 150 zines) in my library, and I could happily part with about half. There are maybe 50 books that I dearly love, and another hundred that I appreciate or otherwise benefit from and should keep as reference material. The others are just there.

      So, while I hate it when I get a book that I don’t like and can’t find some way to appreciate, if I have the money to re-up my subscription in a couple of months, I will; I think it’s better spent with Charcoal than on my own. I may not love everything that comes, but what comes is almost always a treat.