In January, photographer Sohrab Hura compiled six years’ worth of photographs into a book titled Life is Elsewhere. It is neither a lovely nor a comforting work. Its main subjects are his mother, suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, a bulldog named Elsa that seems to mimic his mother’s moods, and a lover. In one frame the mother holds in her palm a photograph from a bygone time when she was lovelier, and in another a pack of dogs haunt the night. These and other gritty photographs capture an undesirable unpleasantness, redeemed only sparsely by dashes of wry humour, mostly because of cone-collared Elsa.

But is this what we thought published works of photography are all about? Whatever happened to those books with strikingly pretty double spreads of wildlife or poignant images of wartime?

Those books are very much around. But more and more Indian photographers are now delving into the experimental possibilities of the photobook and changing the way we “look” at published collections of photographs. Life is Elsewhere, for instance, was an intensely personal journal that Hura had maintained due to his “sheer need to experience all that is about to disappear”. The monochrome photographs in it are interspersed with handwritten journal entries recording his mother’s schizophrenia, and reading these shatters for ever the misconception that a book of photographs is necessarily a coffee table page-turner.

A perspective and a theme

There are no neat categories for pigeonholing published photographic works, but Prashant Panjiar, founder of the Delhi-based non-profit Nazar Foundation, hazards a distinction between a regular book of photographs and a photobook. The former, he says, is a general collection of photos that normally result in what we call coffee table books (you see a lot of exotic India in this section). A photobook, on the other hand, “is an art object and not just a publication. It is a mobile exhibition of the photographer’s work and is greatly concerned with design and form”.

Photobooks deal with narrative and offer a specific perspective on the central theme. “They are not that different from, say, a novel,” said Andrea Fernandes, one of the founders of the Bind Collective, a library of photobooks by both Indian and non-Indian photographers. “Photobooks tell you a story and there is space in between that lets you wander and arrive at your own conclusion.”

Given that the photobook insists on experimentation, not just at the level of technicalities but also, say, the paper or the layout, it demands the convergence of a troika of creatives: a photographer, a photo editor and a designer. In some cases, add another entity – the printer.

Nowhere is this convergence more clear than in Delhi-based Adil Hasan’s monograph When Abba was Ill. It is as personal an account as Hura’s and records the last days of his father losing the battle to seminal vascicle carcinoma. The pastel photos, shot on the family camera and a second-hand camera (both slightly dysfunctional), are ethereal. The decision to bring these together in a book was not Hasan’s. Sanjeev Saith, a photo editor, saw a story in them and transformed them into a visual narrative. In the book, visuals of the father are enclosed in gatefolds, lending some privacy to a personal story being made public.

“The decision to make a photobook was that it could reach out to my family rather than as an exhibition,” said Hasan. “I felt an exhibition of these photos would be too cold and a photobook would make it accessible to audiences. It is important that photographers collaborate with editors and even writers.”

Inclination to experiment

Hura printed just 600 copies of Life is Elsewhere and they are being sold abroad through sellers such as Photobook Corner in Lisbon and Dashwood Books in New York. He would prefer to sell them personally on home turf, since it would allow more reader interaction, but there is no doubt that much of his sales come because of the prestigious title bestowed on him last year. In July, he was nominated to Magnum Photos, the prestigious, international photographic cooperative, becoming the Indian to get the distinction after Raghu Rai.

Hasan’s When Abba was Ill was published in January 2014 by the Nazar Foundation, which managed last year to sell half of the 700 copies printed. “There is no photobook scene as yet in India,” said Panjiar. “As publishers and as a non-profit, we were willing to take risks.” But he notes that the inclination to experiment with photobooks has come at a time when online publishing and digital images are flourishing. “Everyone now feels the need for the tactile.”

Hura warns of photobooks becoming trendy: “While the photobook business is a strict one, photographers need to understand that not everything needs to be into a photobook.”

Fernandes, however, is happy with the willingness of Indian photographers and designers to take on photobooks despite their niche market. A case in point is Bangalore-based Avani Tanya’s self-published The Snapped Rope and Other Stories from the New Bangalore. Tanya introduces her books as “a photographic collection of objects and stories found locally that attempts to tell a multitudinous tale of the city”.

Among these objects are a catapult painted in the colours of the Karnataka nationalist flag and the bark of a seventy-year old African tulip tree felled outside the gates of a cricket stadium for the convenience of people buying IPL tickets. “People are making more pictures and there is a general attention towards photography,” said Fernandes. “Some photobooks will surely stand the test of time but that does not mean you can self-publish a slim volume or two.”