Posts Tagged ‘artistic director’

A black woman and a gorilla

Friday, July 24th, 2020

Photographers have often I think failed to pay sufficient regard to the people in their photographs. Its something that is particularly important because of the power differential that always exists between the person holding the camera and those being depicted. Its something implicit in the language of photography, when we use the metaphors of the gun or jailer, talking about ‘shooting’ or ‘capturing’ pictures, both terms I try hard to avoid. And particularly important where our work involved people of a different class or race.

It is a question that worried me greatly in my early years as a photographer, and explains why I made relatively few pictures of people in those years, outside my own circles of family, friends and communities, concentrating on the built environment. And it was why, though I had admired his earlier black and white work greatly, I felt considerable disquiet about the colour images of working class families holidaying on beaches which turned Martin Parr from a photographers’ photographer into a celebrity. They seemed the work of an intruder while previously he had worked within communities.

The years have somewhat mellowed my view of this work, and Parr has of course gone on to do so much more, including turning his camera on his own middle class, but I still find those pictures marred by class prejudice and I think that this was at least in part what led to their popularity in the media. But of course we have seen far worse by other photographers here and around the world, and Parr is in many ways one of the good guys of photography, through the foundation he set up to encourage young and emerging photographers from all backgrounds and one whose advice encouraged me on several occasions in my early years in photography.

I wasn’t until very recently aware of the work of Italian photographer Gian Butturini and his 1969 book on London, reissued in 2017 with the text ‘Edited by Martin Parr‘ on the cover. It’s the kind of European approach popular at the time when I first began as a photographer and which I set out in total opposition to in terms of its graphic nature and quest for instant impact rather than a more serious consideration of the subject. I’ve not seen the book, only those images I’ve seen on line, and not seen the particular pairing of images of a black woman and a gorilla at London Zoo a which so shocked student Mercedes Baptiste Halliday when she was given the book as a present that she began her 18-month campaign against the book which she says is “appallingly racist.”

Parr has now said he was ashamed of his association with the book and that he deeply regrets his failure to appreciate its racist implications, something Halliday points out is hard to understand from a visually literate person. Parr also points out that the claim on the cover that he edited the book is incorrect as it he only supplied an introduction to what is otherwise a facsimile of the photographer’s 1969 book. He has also said he will donate the fee he received to charity and has called for the book to be removed from sale and destroyed. It is no longer listed on the Damiani Editions web site.

The book and Parr have come into the news as the campaign has led to both the public apology from Parr and his decision to stand down as the artistic director of the first Bristol Photo Festival. But last year’s protests by Halliday outside Parr’s show at the National Portrait Gallery were brushed aside and ignored by the photographic establishment. Perhaps it was the decision by the photography students from the University of the West of England to cancel their end-of-year show at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol that precipitated Parr’s decision.

One supporter of Halliday has been Benjamin Chesterton, known to many in photography and film for his ‘duckrabbit’ blog which I’ve mentioned here on several occasions. Last month he made a post which looked critically at his own family’s history, ‘Our skin in the slave trade. Uncle Sir John Moore and I.‘ which – as ever – is well worth reading. The Guardian quotes him in its article about Parr and the Butturini case as making the very salient point, “The question remains why is it down to a black teenager to confront one of the UK’s leading photographers and curators?”