Martin Parr’s Apologies

Photography, power, and Martin Parr’s apologies; a messy essay (messay?) written last year

A few years ago the notion of photographs having power bothered me. It bothered me because this power was taken for granted in books and lectures and conversations with peers, but I didn’t feel that I had any access to it - setting out to create a powerful picture I had no idea where to start. When power isn’t yours it’s easy to become resentful. And that’s why conversations about representation in photography can not, and should not, be conversations only for the people at the top. Photography relies on the inferred meaning of the pictures (their indirect depictions, the things they symbolise to their audience) just as heavily as what is explicitly shown. Pairing images as diptychs further complicates their reading. By stringing them together in a sequence (whether that is a photo essay, an advertising campaign, an Instagram feed, or a family album) photographs are capable of creating, challenging, deconstructing and reiterating ideas and biases. How these photographs are perceived by an audience is the result of many variables, and largely reliant on the individual viewers’ particular catalogue of references. I like to think of this as the collective tapestry of visual stimuli we each hold somewhere in our subconscious: built  over the years by pictures in magazines, scenes from films, school photos, billboards, lived experience, the messiness of ‘visual culture’ and memory.

This tapestry  is of course a composite of images, not photographs: real events, imagined events, dreams, fictions, photos, films. We use pictures to reach into these lexicons and to build on these accumulated ideas, biases and symbols. Indeed, there is power there - but who holds it? I first encountered ‘photography’ as a distinct thing, trawling deviantart and stumbleupon as a teenager in the ‘computer room for pictures of anything from outside my tiny pocket of Britain. Suddenly photography was a filter in search boxes and a way to catalogue pictures that had particular aesthetics in common. I’d never thought about photographs like this before and I fell in love exotic places and with people I’d never met, largely because of the way in which they were photographed. I was building my own narratives and storylines based on both images and imagination, guided by the way in which these scenes were framed by their author. Of course I didn’t realise it at the time. I didn’t think much at all about the actual construction of the images, other than to try and copy what I saw.  Without the explosion of the internet - and to a certain extent, the digital democratisation of image taking and sharing - I don’t know how teenage me (living in a seaside town that Martin Parr has probably parodied at some point or other) would have discovered photography at all, or thought more pointedly about the power structures operating behind it. It’s important to remember that conversations about photographic representation are not part of everyday conversation.

The context of a photograph’s publication is arguably as important to its meaning as the image itself. You put a picture of a block of cheese on a gallery wall and you view it very differently to the same picture on the side of a truck. Equally, you put a picture of a block of cheese next to a picture of a dead cow - something very different again. Understanding and manipulating this subtext is not something that everyone is privy to. Until I began to study photography I viewed images to a certain extent as facts. We are all consumers of pictures of course, we exist in an increasingly image-bound world and use photography in a growing capacity to understand the world around us. Whether this is taking a picture of a shopping list, sending a loved one a snap of a haircut, or ordering from a catalogue - we are all to some extent visually literate. But this does not mean that everyone using, reading and interpreting images is articulate at positioning them together to say something, and acutely aware of the implications of doing so. 

This said, I don’t think it’s unfair to assume that Martin Parr is well aware of how his pictures will be received. He has built a career, a remarkably successful one, on poking fun in the space between pictures. And when someone like Parr gets to enjoy the privileges and platforms afforded to prestige, the praise for the cleverness of their photography, we have to credit their image-making with purpose. We need to assume that at the very least the ‘leaders’ of the photography industry, the ones with the power, know what they’re doing. That comes with culpability. To be printed in books about photography and heralded as a factor in its evolution, you must be willing to accept your own part in its ability to influence; including its ability to harm. Perhaps Muriel Barbery puts this the best in her novel The Elegance of a Hedgehog:

‘… to be entitled to the liberties of playfulness or enlightened misuse of language one must first and foremost have sworn one’s total allegiance.’

It is difficult to believe that the jibes in Parr’s pictures are accidental - he has made a living and a legacy from this for some years. A lot of the damage inflicted by Parr’s work has historically been tempered by this idea of it being playful. As someone who worked in toxic, male-dominated kitchens for a significant part of their adolescence, I would be inclined to argue that playful disrespect is the most vicious. But even giving Parr the benefit of the doubt, and believing as I did after hearing him talk at Stills: Centre for Photography in 2017 that he really does ‘poke fun’ at Brits with the best of intentions, this only explains how he personally justifies his motivations for shooting. It certainly does not do anything to rectify, absolve or heal the hurt that his photographs have caused since their publication.  

It seems to be a popular fall-back when powerful people are criticised to revert to the benevolence of their intention; their intention is not what is being addressed. Boxer James Hawley recently began an online ‘apology’ after publicly publishing homophobic and transphobic material on his Instagram channel with the words ‘I never meant anything by it’. To me it seems what he is really saying here is ‘I never meant to have to deal with the consequences.’ Lived experiences of hurt, shame, discomfort, anger - these are real results, intentions aside. It seems that hurting people is usually regarded as a causeless enigma: an unfortunate but unrelated situation, curtly sidestepped in order to explain the author’s motivations. Bringing this back to photography - Martin Parr belittles the working class in his photographs? Why he does not intend to, he is simply curious. He loves everything he photographs! True or not, this doesn’t begin to engage with or understand those affected, and does not consider the implications that pictures can have. 

Last year Parr’s numerous apologies in response to his involvement in editing the 2017 re-publication of Gian Butturini’s London showed an interesting evolution. His first response -  ignore the problem. When Mercedes Baptise Halliday campaigned outside his Only Human exhibition he did not engage. At all. Even if this is because he was unaware of her actions (as he claims) this only goes to show the gaping void between photographers such as Parr and those consuming the images he produces, edits, introduces and profits from.  It is only when this campaign achieved renewed attention with the added momentum of the 2020 BLM campaign, alongside social media pressure from numerous sources (and I don’t think it’s wise to ignore the fact that a proportion of this pressure came from a cluster of white men) that he released a formal apology, and after a considerable pause. To me this shows two things: that powerful people only listen to powerful problems, and that in this pause Parr was thinking strategy. Ignoring the problem was not going to work. Now, I don’t think taking time is a bad thing, and in fact  careful mediation is crucial in self-scrutiny - but it seems unlikely that Parr was using this time for soul-searching. Rather,  to figure out how to alleviate the most of his responsibility.

Too often apologies issued from those in positions of power read as a kind of courtroom defense. There are pieces of evidence and cold logic. There is no attempt to empathise, nothing emotive, no authenticity and most importantly no admission of wrong-doing. In their caution these ‘apologies’ reveal a lack of any real care. In Parr’s first statement he explained that he didn’t edit the book at all. A subtle way to show Baptiste Halliday that she was mistaken; he was, in actual fact, not at fault. 

‘The publishers of the book wrote on the front cover that I edited the book, but this is incorrect.’ 

It’s bizarre then that this distance was only brought to light when accused of gross insensitivity, and not when posing with signed copies for commercial resale. Defensive statements like this do nothing to heal the hurt caused, they only succeed in fortifying the divide between experiences and undermining the lived experience of those hurt. What is it about commercial success that is so at odds with accountability? An apology should not be a vehicle to repel blame. 

It’s unfortunate that the acceleration of social media and the rise of what is being called ‘cancel culture’ can amplify a certain kind of public pressure which stands at odds with the genuine personal reflection that a good apology should have at its core. But that isn’t to say that this public pressure can’t have real, useful effects, the repercussions of which with potential for great good. I’ve seen many articles online bemoaning cancel culture as an end to ‘free speech’; fewer from those optimistic  that these confrontations may instil greater care in image-making and a growing sensitivity to others’ experiences.  Under building pressure from a number of online platforms, and following a student-led protest that saw him resign from Bristol Photo Festival, Parr released a series of further statements across multiple channels, some in direct correspondence with Mercedes and some on his public digital spaces. Notice how the language in these apologies changes: in a statement pinned to the footer of his website (August 2020) the tone has changed completely, Parr would now like to ‘unreservedly apologise’. The sincerity of this statement is debatable. There is certainly a part of me pained to see this language coming after months of online onslaught. I don’t think Martin Parr ever set out to create or perpetuate racist ideologies. But I don’t think that benevolent intentions are a good enough excuse to not have to put in the reparative work once actions have had direct consequences. In further correspondence with Mercedes he admitted: 

‘This is no excuse, but I’m nearly 70-years-old and a white man and regretfully I’m coming to realise that sometimes I have failed to see things from another perspective.’

On his website Parr describes himself as ‘a chronicler of our age’ - a lofty title, which comes with considerable weight - and which you would hope would be informed by dialogue, feedback and critique from a number of others. Perhaps it’s the golden lining of ‘cancel culture’ that now more than ever we are aware of how our attitudes may appear to others. Of course, it’s fundamental to photography, in art at least, that individual perspective and framing are key. I admit the photographers I am most excited by are the ones that reveal little bits of themselves in each frame.  Making images is  personal - but so is consuming them. 

As with everything in life, no matter how much attention, recognition or acclaim we receive we need to be ready to reconsider our decisions from the viewpoint of those affected by them. I’m struck by the thought that most people in the world are judged on what they do and what direct effect they have, not what their creative motivations were. If someone were to point out my involvement in a project that had been understood as racist I would be horrified. It would not take 18 months of campaigning for me to apologise. But it seems too often authority and empathy seem to stand at odds. For people like Parr, even if they’ve trampled all over someone else’s property, identity, values, sense of worth - as long as they didn’t MEAN anything by it they’re often impervious to blame. It’s exhausting. Who then is left to do the emotional labour on their behalf? Those who are made uncomfortable, those who are hurt, those who have less to lose and less full stop. It’s exhausting calling out bullshit. But in this case at least, it seems to be working.

(Written in August 2020 and edited in May 2021)

A quick note on gender and scrutiny in art

In the last half hour of International Women’s Day, I thought I’d try to articulate something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. This is definitely part of a larger web of issues and there is so much to be said about gender and scrutiny but for the sake of my own wellbeing and some kind of focus for this blog I’m keen to keep this mainly on track - to do with photography, making art, being an artist. That’s my disclaimer for why this is brief (although let’s be honest this is my website I can write what I like) and I should also say this based on conversations I’ve had over a series of years with my particular peer group. 

One of the ways in which gender inhibits women is in a total disparity in levels of scrutiny, even before the work is on the wall. I over-think everything before I share it with the world, often to the point of abandoning a picture or a piece of writing altogether because I manage to imagine it seen from a certain perspective where the meat of it is contorted to mean something hateful, cruel or unfair. Sometimes so much energy simply goes into predicting ways in which I could be vilified for something that I run out of steam in pursuing that something altogether. Perhaps men also go through this, but choose to ignore it? Or are men just not cautious about visibility in the same way, as something which invites a level of personal, professional and ethical scrutiny, with the power to ruin their reputation or career? 

Speaking to other female artists, I don’t think I’m alone. If you were particularly resistant to the possibility that perhaps experiences for men and women are different you might argue that I’m just part of a particularly self-conscious cluster of female makers - but let’s be honest, isn’t it more likely that for women criticism is more commonplace, the repercussions more severe? If you think about the many ways in which women are policed in society - wear this, don’t wear that, don’t go out after dark, don’t drink too much, don’t show too much, be coy, be clever, be charming, be skinny, be curvy, stick up for yourself, don’t cause a fuss; is it difficult to imagine that this might translate, somewhere in the subconscious, into a similar sort of rigorous self-criticism, even before the thing is thrown out into the world? We tend to celebrate ‘art’ as the freedom of self expression, a blank canvas, a way of revealing ourselves - but for women, there seems to exist a cycle of wringing your creative impulses through an elaborate series of tests: potential receptions, imagined challenges, accusations of being false, accusations of generalisation, the never-ending curtain of condescension, an effort always to put yourself in others’ shoes first to imagine how one could disagree or disapprove. We prepare to justify every single coherent decision that has gone into the making and presentation of an idea because we’re very familiar with being criticised and because a lot is done to make women unsure of themselves. 

The need to justify yourself is a peculiar space to begin a piece of art. Sometimes though I think these processes can do great good. Doubt can cause you to push yourself, to reconsider, to be aware of problems, to be empathetic, to work harder than a lot of men do. But something I’m coming to realise is that is hard work isn’t necessarily the same as ‘good art’. This is a peculiar industry where visions of ‘creative genius’ and effortlessness are rewarded just as often as hard graft. The other thing is that all this self-regulation takes time, the initial spark of an idea often compromised for something less disruptive. Often I wonder how many seeds of insight have been quashed at any one of these various interventions. How many women have stepped back to reconfigure, to regulate their initial idea, and not stepped back forward? How many women have spent an afternoon meticulously justifying their reasoning to an imagined jury, and decided just not to comment the next time? It requires so much energy. It takes time to be rigorous and when that’s teamed with the rest of life’s compromises it can mean nothing left for making or sharing. The urge to assert your perfectly natural right to say something about anything battles with an acute sense of being an imposter. 

I’m yet to meet a man who encounters this same series of hoops, and it’s not for lack of trying. Even when men say they’re unsure about something or not 100% happy it’s usually when brandishing a completed body of work, a thing buoyed by enough self-believe and peer or familial support for it at least to exist. I’m aware also that as much as I tell my peers that there is worth in their perspective and that inviting someone else to share that is in itself a generous thing, I don’t often extend this support to myself.  Why is that? Why am I so enthusiastic to support the men I see making work and less ready to encourage my own desire to say something? Very often - and perhaps it’s just in art - men are excited to share their opinion, ready to be heard, they do things just because they want to, play devil’s advocate, platform real problems as artistic ‘provocations’ and see what they can get away with. Because they can. And it bothers me to admit that I’m jealous of blind self belief - because I so wish that I had that - and at the same time I don’t think that it’s clever at all.

If you’re interested in this topic, I talk about some of these ideas (kind of) with Erin Semple in this episode of Finding Focus.

On the transcendental beauty of the outside; art during lockdown

Perhaps during lockdown, with galleries and museums closed to us, we look instead to the city for our art. 

And I mean ‘art’ in the sense of something transcendental: to catapult our imaginations from the everyday. Instead of peering into glass on the walls of old, hushed buildings we look to the bricks and trees immediately before us, into our neighbours’ windows as a different kind of frame. We summon fictions; reflect back our own meaning. In this way, the interiority of our present existence leads to the outside world - the flesh and bone of the city. Here in Edinburgh it’s perhaps not dissimilar - the same grandeur of grey stone, outside not in, the ability of this place to move us; affect the soul somehow. I find myself being surprised often - as if I’d forgotten all this beauty was here the whole time, before lockdown, simultaneously as electric as the bits framed and catalogued as ‘art’. And this special reverence usually sought in galleries and churches, before a small rope barrier and down-lit bulbs, reserved primarily for art museums and prestige and the stiffness of history - can be found on your doorstep, perhaps! A beam of sunlight on a bus stop becomes a masterstroke, one-of-a-kind; a glimmer of foil in the bushes somehow causes your throat to catch. The same hushed wonder exists in most everything I see, as I walk, earphones in and blinking the screen from my eyes, the smells and the brightness and the othering brilliance of it all almost too much to bear.

From my notebook (January 25th - scribbled when I got in from a walk)

Images are: scribbling, moments outside at a similar time

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