Martin Parr is one of the most highly acclaimed photographers of the 20th century. His body of work, no matter how absurd, has been celebrated by peers and admirers alike.
In 2003, Martin was the subject of a TV documentary titled The World According to Parr, which essentially explored why he works the way he does and what makes him tick. Martin has always had a knack for capturing the most mundane of things – backs of people’s heads, fairy cakes, tissue boxes, teacups, fruits and vegetables, people talking on mobile phones, even a light switch – but where other people’s attempts at doing something similar would elicit a “what the hell is that?” kind of response, Martin’s would be praised as something that’s “quintessentially British” or a reflection of society at a particular given time.
And, perhaps, rightly so. Because the thing is, you’d probably have to look at Martin’s work as a whole versus just looking at each photograph one by one to make sense of it.
The World According to Parr ran for about 44 minutes and didn’t only reveal who Martin was and how his experiences throughout his life shaped who he is today, it also turned out to be a lesson of sorts. I watched it for the first time today and from it was able to glean some things I certainly need to keep in mind when I do my own thing.
Don’t Photograph to Impress
It’s a bit shameful but I have to admit that sometimes I feel (and give in to) the need to take pictures that would impress people. By this I refer to images that are perfectly composed and palatable, generally speaking; it only makes sense that beautiful images would impress everyone, right?
It’s the complete opposite of what Martin had always done. Throughout his career, he trusted his gut and went after stories that he liked, never mind that they were things his contemporaries would steer clear of. In fact, in the video, it was revealed that Magnum took a while to accept his application because some people didn’t like his work! Clearly, it was never about his audience, or anyone else for that matter, but about him and what messages he wanted to convey.
I’m not saying it’s wrong to take pictures that wow people. But what’s not right is to take pictures with the goal of impressing people, of winning awards, or of raking in likes and comments on social media.
Moreover, not all pictures need to be pretty and exciting. They need to be real and exactly what you want to express. Just take pictures until you find your own voice. And don’t be afraid to not fit in!
Getting Close Could Be a Good Thing
“Parr is not simply a documentary photographer. He never stands back to observe the world. There’s always a point of view,” narrated presenter Alan Yentob in the video.
Indeed, many of Martin’s photos have this in-your-face quality about them! In the documentary, he revealed that, because of his frustration over being unable to get close enough to his subjects, he started using macro lens and a ring flash in 1995. In doing so, he was able to photograph quickly, evenly, and closer than he ever had. The ring flash served as a portable studio type of lighting that produced the highly saturated color images he’s known for.
Getting close to subjects is something I’ve always wanted to do because I know that doing so would raise my chances of capturing a better angle, a better story. Unfortunately, I could only muster the resolve if I’m with a fellow photographer. I’m scared of being chastised, not really of getting rejected. And so I end up just taking pictures from a distance which, while okay, doesn’t really say much most of the time.
So maybe, it’s better to just get right into it and take things from a perspective than remain an outsider who simply documents a scene. Just make sure to be respectful and mindful of people’s boundaries.
Whatever Idea You May Have Now, Work on It
At the time when the documentary was filmed, Martin was working on a project that involved photographing the last available spot in parking lots. As he took a photo of one such empty parking space, he admitted that he didn’t know what to do with it but that he’d “definitely do something ‘cause I like this idea” (and he has!).
I think many of us, myself included, fall into the trap of being hindered from pursuing certain ideas because we think they don’t make any sense or have any real purpose. It’s paralyzing: if I don’t find that purpose or meaning for a certain project, I end up shelving it or worse, canceling it altogether.
I could take a leaf out of Martin’s book and just shoot whatever comes to mind. Work on a project even without the assurance that I’d do something about it. I need to be reminded that things don’t always have to make sense now and that I don’t always need to have a purpose right off the bat because it kills the idea and desire to just photograph. If I let myself get stuck and obsessed with laying out a plan for it even before I pick up my camera, I’ll probably end up with nothing (and zero photography practice). So just do it!
Take Pictures to Make Sense of the World
One of the most interesting and most relatable things Martin said in the documentary was this:
“What I’m doing when I’m photographing is collecting ideas, collecting bits of information, as well as collecting things physically. I’ve collected millions of photographs in my career. And sometimes you can put them together and make some sense out of the world and put them into projects.”
Although I’m a writer first and foremost, I think I understand where Martin was coming from. Instead of a camera, I try to make sense of the world by writing things down one thought at a time. Again, some things might not make sense as it is but as days pass and your writings or photos accumulate, you’ll eventually notice a pattern or theme.
Sometimes, it’s only when you look back that things become crystal clear. Photography, or whatever medium it is you choose to work with, could be one good way to record things if only so you could piece them together later on to make sense of the world around you.
Photography Is Indeed a Powerful Tool – Never Underestimate it
This is something we all already know but it bears repeating. Photography has helped improved lives, destroyed careers, exposed plights, provoked reactions… I could go on and on but you already know what I’m talking about.
Although he’s known for his too-close-for-comfort, absurd images, Martin had done some pretty powerful projects, too. Notable ones included The Last Resort (1985), The Cost of Living (1989), and Small World (1995). They were his personal commentaries on the biggest happenings in the periods they were taken and they helped start discourse.
So, yes, photography isn’t just a tool to preserve moments for posterity. It’s a powerful tool that you could use to, at the grandest sense, change the world.
That’s it! Have you seen The World According to Parr? How did you find it? What were your biggest takeaways from it? Sound off in the comments!
All screenshots from YouTube.