Martin Parr – The Photographer from Another Planet

Interview by Vicente Dolz

Today, we’re delving into the world of a photographer who firmly believes that “Everybody has something.” His outlook is deeply humanistic, peppered with humor that can be at times exaggerated yet always sharp. In his lens, people emerge with all their quirks, indulgences, and vulnerabilities laid bare.

With his work showcased in prestigious museums, numerous published books, and adorned with international accolades, he’s an authority in his field. Martin Parr, the English photographer and avid traveler, captures life’s spectrum through his lens with unyielding observation.

Not only does he impart his wisdom as a visiting professor at the University of Ulster, but he also holds membership in the esteemed Magnum agency, where he once served as president. Here at the Martin Parr Foundation nestled in Bristol, we aim to unravel more about the man behind the camera. Join us as we delve deeper into the world of Mr. Parr.



© Vicente Dolz

Good morning Martin. How did it all start photographically speaking?

 It started with my grandfather, who was a very keen and amateur photographer. He lived in York, in the north of England and I visited him during my summer holidays and because he was a keen amateur photographer, he decided to give me a camera. Then we could go shooting together, developing films, made some prints. So about the age of thirteen or fourteen I already decided to be a photographer.

What memories do you have of your childhood and how do you think it influenced you or your photography?

 My childhood was quite boring in the sense that I grew up in the home counties, what we call it home counties it’s just the suburbs of London. And they are quite dull, so I think that’s had an influence on me because everywhere else I go to now always feels exciting. My parents were also birdwatchers, so they took me on bird watching trips and we didn’t go to places like Blackpool or Brighton, so I missed out on that.

© Martin Parr

How would you define your photography?

I would define my photography as being about the connection to the places I live and it’s really been a life-mission, particularly  to photograph in Britain. You know, I’m British and therefore I need to understand it further by really exploring through photography. Therefore,  photography gives me an excuse to go to places I don’t know and find out about them, travel  all around the world. Because I’m a very curious person, photography suits my temperament.

With the pandemic you must have encountered a big problem in taking your usual photos. What have you photographed during this period?

 Well, another thing that has happened is that last year I’ve developed something called myeloma which is a form of cancer, so this meant that I couldn’t walk well without help. I’m better now it means that I can photograph but I still have the aid of a mobile scooter to help me to photograph from which is quite fun. Also because of the lockdown, everything stopped and my photography also stopped, because there were no people. I photograph people basically, so if there is no people I can’t take pictures. And then they finally did come back  last summer but that was just the time I got diagnosed with being ill, and I couldn’t really photograph last summer. But now I’m back again and photographing, which just makes me really happy.

Do you think that when we finish with the pandemic we will also have finished with the model of tourism? Will everything go back to the way it was before?

 I think tourism will probably calm down a bit, I mean the big thing it’ll be missing probably for quite a long time will be the Chinese travellers. With the Chinese being the big notorious, if you look at places like Barcelona, Versailles in Paris, London even they’ve been a big new addition to the tourists’ menu. But at the moment none of them can come, so until the Chinese are back in Europe and America, tourism will be under what it was before.

© Martin Parr 

How are agencies like Magnum dealing with the digital world we live in?

 I think Magnum has done quite well since the digital revolution and we have Instagram of course, but the big thing for us in the last eight or ten years has been the  print sale.  These are collections  which are printed digitally, signed and are only 100 pounds, a 100 euros or a 100 dollars.  we do these, twice a year and they generate a lot of income for Magnum, so it’s a new way of going straight to our consumers. Because before we used to go just to the businesses and sell pictures to books or magazines, or advertising or whatever, but now we can go straight to our customers. So that’s been enabled to the digital process, so it’s made a big difference.

Smartphones and photography, does it change the paradigm?

 Yes, I mean, everyone has got a camera now, so wherever there’s a disaster in the world, someone there is with a camera. Nevertheless  we still need the skills of good photographers to show and illustrate these things so much better. So yes it’s had a big effect on the whole world and everyone’s obsessed with the smartphone, people looking at them all the time. I’ve done a book about people doing selfies in fact, called “Death by Selfie”, so yes it’s something I’ve incorporated into my photographs. And on the tourism front, you know, everyone has to take a selfie of them in front of the place they visit and that’s a trend I’ve also photographed.

Is it easy to take an exceptional photo? How many do you think each photographer has? More than 10?

 I think it’s very difficult to take an exceptional photograph, but everyday when you go out and shoot, you hope that it would be the case that today or one of these days you will get lucky. I would  say I’ve probably say I’ve done 50 good exceptional pictures in my career, so that’s probably bragging even slightly, but they are very difficult to take and I’m glad they’re difficult to take and all the digital technology that we have now, doesn’t make it any easier. Because in the end a good photo has a story to tell about a connection from the photographer to the subject matter and that’s the thing that makes good photography work.

© Martin Parr

You have said on some occasions that you take serious photographs disguised as entertainment. It’s a very critical and acid entertainment, don’t you think?

 The first part you have is to make a bright and colourful picture that is well designed, to draw people in and then once they’ve got that, hopefully they will see that there are other things going on but they’re not particularly spelled out. So, it’s just like a slow more subtle way of showing my view of the world, but unless you’ve got an entertaining picture in the first place you’re never going to get the audience, so this is why I think it’s important and why I’m very happy to work in colour because it’s like a whole idea of bright, colourful images that draw people in.

What do you think about photobooks?

 I love them, look, all around us, you can see them, and there’s more everywhere. I think that a photobook is the ultimate way a photographer can get their statement across. You can design it, you can make sure all the pictures are in it that you think are really good. And no one throws books away, you know, things like magazines, they come and they go, exhibitions they come up and then they disappear. So the great thing about a photobook is that it’s there forever and no one would even ever think about throwing away a photobook.

© Vicente Dolz

With so many channels, Instagram, FB, … we say democratisation of photography but aren’t we also trivialising it?

 No, I think the digital revolution we have and platforms like Instagram are very important. It’s a way that the photographer that has something to say can build an audience and find people. People recommend people on Instagram, so yeah, I think it makes the whole process of photography more democratic. So before you had to go to the  people that run galleries, the people that run publishing houses, now you can just do it all yourself, you have an exhibition, you can show the pictures online, you can produce a self-published book and people will notice that.

During your time at university, were your photographs liked and understood?

 Initially, they didn’t much like me and after the first year they tried to throw me out because I hadn’t done my technical exercises very well, but luckily the first year, the tutor really liked my work and argued very strongly that I should stay in college. So I had quite a rough time at the college, but when I finally did my show, the external assessor came and gave me a very high mark, so I got my final revenge on the college because he upgraded me when previously I had a low mark.

I attended a conference in which a member of the audience asked Sebastiao Salgado why he had switched to digital photography and Sebastiao very calmly answered: With analogue photography I took 10 out of every 100 photos and with digital I take 90 out of every 100. Do you miss the analogue era? Why do you think there is a resurgence right now?

 I think there’s a resurgence because people, young people in particular, like to rebel against the sort of things expected, so yes people love to rediscover the old ways of doing things, but I have no interest in going back to the chemicals. You know, you have to use if you do analogue photography, but I do think that the prints, colour prints, sometimes are better on see paper than on digital but genuinely the quality of digital these days is so strong and so good, and you can actually make the files look like see print. So,  that keeps you very happy. Apart from his, we like to collect prints in pigment.

Of all the photos you have taken, do you have a favourite?

 I guess it’s not one image but I’d say “The last resort” is still my most popular project, so you know, a few pictures within that. But I don’t want to make it about one picture, I’m just going to make it about this project. Depressingly, that was 5 years ago, a long time ago, so I’m never going to do anything as good as that ever again. So I’m resting on my past.

The beach is a scenery, a theme, very much chosen by you. Why do you like it so much?

 I like the beach because people relax, they can be themselves. It’s a very good way of looking at people in leisure and what I like of course is the whole idea that you know, you can go there and you can use different techniques. So in my career I did it first in black and white, then I shot the beach in 6×7 medium format, and then I went to 35mm digital, and then I went to telephoto lens, and then I also went to the macro lens. And every time I’ve introduced a new technique into my work, I’ve used the beach as my experimental sort of place to look at things and see how they can change by using different techniques.

© Martin Parr

Do you think the images have a political content? If so, what political content do yours have?

 I mean, I think politics, I think all documentary photographers come from the left-wing. You never see a right-winged photo-journalist unless you want to tell me otherwise. And so yes, the messages are subtle , I mean I didn’t like Brexit, so I did pictures around that which you can see I think if you look carefully a sense of unease about Brexit. So yeah, I think most things are political but I don’t actually make them just political, you know the politics are there to be read in a subtle way if you look at all the pictures.

You were president of Magnum for four years. What is the job of a Magnum president?

The Magnum president is how you talk to the staff, so in a sense I accumulate the information from photographers about what they are thinking, what they are saying and then I communicate that to the CEO of Magnum and he or she would make that go down to the other people of the department. So in a sense if we have to say one thing it would be the bridge between the staff and the photographers.

Is there any truth to the story that Cartier Bresson objected to your joining Magnum in 1994?

 Yes, he did not want me to be in, he didn’t like my work particularly. He came to a show of mine I think in 1996 and he was very cross, he didn’t like it. It was a show called “A small world” my pictures about tourism and then he wrote me a letter saying, you know, I respect what you’re doing, but I think you’re from a different planet. So I wrote back and said “I agree with you but why shoot the messenger”.

Do you think nostalgia is a quality or a weakness of photographers?

 I think it can be a weakness because people love to photograph, understandably, things that are about to disappear in society. So if it’s a shop closing down or a factory closing down, often there’s a photographer there to record it, and I think it’s a good thing that they do that but we do get lowered into things that are very picturesque, very nostalgic. So I think in a sense I try to avoid that by photographing things that people think are boring like supermarkets and hypermarkets and such like.

© Martin Parr

You set up a foundation for what purpose?

 Our foundation’s purpose is to really try and promote to give a platform for other British and Irish photographers. So we have a big library here, we have all the magazines and we have a room full of prints we’ve collected from different photographers, we believe that they’re very strong and very good and are underrepresented and underappreciated. So it’s our job to try and to give them, you know, exposure, introduce them to I hope a bigger audience.

Awkward question: Do you think a travel agency would hire you?

 Noo, they’re all full of lies, you know, and I try to see it from my own perspective, in an honest way, so there’s no way I could be part of a travel agency shoot. Good question.

© Vicente Dolz

Our thanks to Martin Parr for his kindness, his time and his words. Thank you very much Martin.

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