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)