Martin Parr: “I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind”


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Martin Parr
Photo by Martin Parr © Magnum Photos
Short Profile

Name: Martin Parr
DOB: 23 May 1952
Place of birth: Epsom, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Photographer

Martin Parr’s artist talk on the occasion of this year's European Month of Photography was part of the program of the EMOP Opening Days at C/O Berlin, 28-30 September 2018.

Mr. Parr, can you still recognize the England that you photographed in the 1970s when you look at the country today?

All countries evolve slowly, you can recognize aspects of life in those decades that still ring true, but of course many things change… So, the answer is yes and no, but that’s not a very good answer, is it? (Laughs)

It seems to me that little has actually changed when looking at your shots of the beach in New Brighton in the mid eighties — elderly people on folding chairs, screaming babies…

I would say somewhere like Hebden Bridge, where I took some of my first photos, has changed more dramatically because the whole economy of that town has changed from the seventies to what it is now. In those days it was still a working class town with factories and manufacturing, whereas it’s now a very big tourist location.

“I wanted to try and get the spirit of these occasions into my images.”

You once said that your feelings about Britain are a mixture of affection and concern. Why is that?

Well, the thing you have to explain is that my relationship to Britain and the process of photographing it is a therapeutic one: there are many aspects of Britain I like and many aspects I don’t like. I am very attracted to the humor, the banter, the crazy things we all do, the character of the people. I mean, going to places like Blackpool, the biggest seaside resort which I did in the early seventies, or going to the Knutsford Royal May Day Carnival: moments like that really come home to you. There were places that I was attracted to, places that I liked, places I wanted to try and photograph. I wanted to try and get the spirit of these occasions into my images.

Is that why you started taking photos in the first place? To capture the spirit of an occasion?

I started photography because my grandfather was a very keen photographer so I went to stay with him when I was a teenager, we would go out shooting together, processing film, making prints. By the age of 13 and 14, that’s what I decided to do, and that’s what I went on to do all my life. It was just something that was passed on to me that I took to immediately. I was out there taking pictures of the places and people around me — and that made me happy.

And which parts of photographing Britain make you unhappy or concerned?

I don’t like the bigotry and the racism, those basically who voted to leave the EU. This has been heightened recently by the Brexit vote. Back in the seventies, I was aware of my identity as a British person and I guess that heightens when you start to travel. It’s something that slowly evolves. But even still, I am a classic Remainer and I am very angry about the vote and what’s happening.

But you are known for capturing Britain in difficult times, like during Margaret Thatcher’s government — maybe Brexit is simply one of those moments?

Sure, this is almost giving me a push similar to the kind I had during the time with Ms. Thatcher, when I was very cross about her! I think in the end that’s probably quite good for working circumstances. (Laughs) For instance, I’m doing a big show next year in London, in March, the month we’re meant to leave the EU. The biggest section will be called Britain in the Time of Brexit, which will look at the last three, four years of life in Britain, accentuating some of these aspects of national identity. That to me is a very good time to sort of feedback my observations in a therapeutic process of love-hate that I feel in Britain.

Would you say you’re a nostalgic person?

I think all photographers tend to be nostalgic. It’s an automatic weakness of all photographers, not just me! It’s very easy to think of times past where things were better, but things improve in society — like dentistry is a lot better now, whereas terrorism is worse. I mean, all life is built on contradictions, that’s part of what you express through photography. But I also have a responsibility to try and document things as they change, things that may disappear, or things that stay as they are now. I’m always looking to photograph Britain in its most current state.

Documentary photographer Robert Polidori said the purpose of his pictures is not to seduce but rather to change people’s minds. Is this something that resonates with you?

No. I mean, I’m creating entertainment, which has a serious message if you want to read into it but I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind — I’m just showing them what they think they may know already. I’m in the entertaining business! The great strength of photography is that it’s high and low culture at the same time. So you can have a picture on the wall of a very fine museum like the Tate or Museum of Modern Art, but you can also have it printed very cheaply in a zine and hand it out for free. The fact that photography goes across all these genres is one of its wonderful strengths!

“I know my work can sometimes be controversial.”

Would you say that flexibility allows your work to be more easily understood? 

The response to my work is generally positive. Every five years or so there is a negative response, people say, “You can’t use that photograph of me.” Everything is dealt on a case by case situation. But more often, people are saying, “I found a picture of my father.” And I’ll just send them the picture! But I know my work can sometimes be controversial.

Are you seeking that controversy when you’re working?

I don’t want confrontation; your idea is as good as mine. You tell me! It’s not something I think about a lot. I mean, people seem to think that I don’t like people or they think that I’m a misogynist, which is not the case, I get on well with people and enjoy meeting people. I knew that my work was controversial from the outset when I started photographing in color rather than black and white. But I also realized early on that that didn’t do any harm. I knew what I was up to and my own conscience was clear. It’s not something I dwell on.