Martin Parr / Welcome to Belfast
October 2016 Interviewed by Anna Akage
Magnum Photos cooperative president Martin Parr is a globally-recognised authority in contemporary photography and a self-proclaimed ‘chronicler of our age’. He was born in Epsom, Surrey (UK) in 1952 and studied photography at Manchester Polytechnic. In the 40 years of his photographic career he has published over 90 books of his own images and his work has been collected by many major museums, including the Tate, the Pompidou Centre and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Parr’s new exhibition Welcome to Belfast recently opened at Belfast Exposed, who commissioned the artist to make this new documentary project on tourism in Belfast. Since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, Northern Ireland has witnessed a dramatic economic resurgence. The tourism industry has flourished, fundamentally changing the scene of local life; visitors follow the legacy of the Titanic that was built in the Belfast docks and the historical events of the Troubles’ decades of violent conflicts. Parr’s images illustrate impressive changes that the city and its inhabitants have witnessed.
Below, Anna Akage caught up with Parr on Skype and asked him more about his recent projects, his view on British and international photography and the possibility of being detached in documentary photography.
Anna Akage: Good morning Martin. The thought of the day?
Martin Parr: I should quit doing interviews because the ultimate statement is in the work you produce. You can’t explain it anyway!
AA: That’s a great start. The exhibition of your recent project Welcome to Belfast opens tomorrow in Belfast; could you tell me a bit about this new work.
MP: The gallery Belfast Exposed invited me to do this commission. The notion of Belfast as a war-torn city that turns into a tourist-crowded location is very interesting. It is a new experience for me as a photographer and as a teacher too – I’ll be a tutor of a new MFA Photography course at Belfast School of Art so I’m about to go to my students.
AA: You work in the UK primarily, though many times in other interviews you have mentioned that photography and photographers are not valued in the UK as they should be.
MP: Compared to France or Germany it is so. It’s a cultural and historical thing, we like words and music in Britain. Photography has always been a lower state. It’s very difficult to sell prints in Britain. But it is getting better with the Tate coming on board. As the leaders in art industry in the UK, they started to embrace photography over these past ten years. So it is improving, but it will take a while to catch up to France. At the same time, it is more difficult to shoot in France, you need to find support to do so, to show, to sell it. The law there is much tighter than in the UK, where you can work freely in the public. Of course, there is a possibility that the era of street photography is coming to an end. After all, it’s about the freedom of the individual and our personal freedom is constantly being eroded, just look at Turkey.
AA: You are following the news but do you have any interest in conflict or war photography?
MP: Absolutely don’t. Plenty of my colleagues are very motivated doing it but I’d rather have a nice meal and a glass of wine in the evening. I think everybody has to do their job. They do wars. I’d rather do supermarket. Mine is a supermarket.
AA: Currently, you are working on a project about Oxford University. Will you hang out with the students?
MP: Yes, I’ll be going to events, science labs, the balls, sports events, everything. It’s a privileged, stuck in the past and a closed society. The traditions of the university are old fashioned and quite modern at the same time. And the project will be about these contradictions. This project is the latest chapter of my body of work about the establishment in the UK.
AA: You are turning to the past often.
MP: But you have to do it, you can’t photograph a contemporary person without connecting with characters’ past or the contradictions would be very overwearing. It’s very straight forward but it’s documentary photography: there are so many things going on in our world that need attention and examination.
AA: And from all the subjects you chose entertainment.
MP: Leisure. Because leisure helps us to find who we are and what we do. That’s been my main project over the 40 years that I’ve been shooting. And mainly it is about the leisure pursuits of the wealthy west.
AA: And you don’t want to change the theme?
MP: Why should I? I have a calling for a vacation.
AA: It’s too late to ask what inspires you, rather – what still turns you on?
MP: The world still turns me on. It is a crazy place changing all the time. I’m watching telly and reading the papers to keep up with it. And the clear thing is that we live in the existing world, but also depressing: sustainability, ISIS…
AA: But you don’t want this to be in your photography, only happy things.
MP: I don’t think my pictures are particularly happy. They reflect contradiction and everything has elements of the contradictions of modern life. And everything is propaganda.
AA: Yes, rewrite the text and the meaning of the image could be changed completely.
MP: It is very easy to manipulate, yes. Most of the photographs we see in the world are propaganda. And I am very subjective and never pretended to be neutral too. I’m an interpreter. And I think that subjectivity is quite important. That was something I came with into photography – my views. I came with my own interpretation of the world and that’s the whole point – you try to express that through photography. You try to find an image that can go another way if you like and show it to the viewers so they can bring their own interpretation too.
AA: But what about documentary photography?
MP: The difference is in the process but there surely is something personal if you want to take it. It is like occasionally getting a good photograph and taking the ultimate role to document something.
AA: But you wouldn’t want artists to work for the news agencies…
MP: Why not? All TV-broadcasting has an agenda.
AA: So everybody is an artist and nobody is doing photojournalism.
MP: The good photojournalists are the subjective ones and they do their job for personal reasons.
AA: What’s going wrong in photography?
MP: I see too much laziness in the world of photography. People started taking photography too easy. Yes, it is easy to take pictures technically but it’s very difficult to show true individuality.
Anna Akage is a freelance writer from Kiev, Ukraine. She is a frequent contributor to birdinflight.com and lensculture.com, particularly interested in modern documentary and conflict photography. More of her work can be found on her writing portfolio website akageportfolio.tumblr.com.