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Interview with Martin Parr

Martin parr architecturl review

We speak to British photographer Martin Parr whose work capturing tourists across the globe grasps something of both the reality of place and its mythology

How do you think the current pandemic will impact tourism in the longer term?

Tourism has always been getting bigger and bigger, but it may have peaked in 2019. The notion of things like airport expansions are just finished. I can’t see Virgin, if it survives, or even British Airways going back to their old schedules. Saying that, we’ve already seen tourism go. We had the 2008 financial crash, but it didn’t seem to puncture it all that much – tourism was pretty much back and running 18 months later. You had got all these new middle-class people and whole nations, like China, suddenly unleashing themselves on the rest of the world, desperate to experience it. And it would have continued to grow, were it not for this enormous sea change. 

I think, inevitably, we will start travelling less. I travel quite a lot myself, but my appetite for travel right now is entirely diminished. Especially when you hear these horrific stories of people stranded, desperately trying to get back home. Suddenly it’s a different ball game. It’s like a rat party for tourism as you knew it.

Small world martin parr architectural review

Small world martin parr architectural review

Small World, Martin Parr, Geoff Dyer, Dewi Lewis, 2018 (third edition)

How is this going to impact your series of photographs on tourism and, more particularly, tourists?

You can’t really photograph people who aren’t there. Pressure is what I like to photograph. In February I was at the Venice Carnival, which is absolutely mobbed, and the following weekend they stopped the carnival entirely. I keep going back to Venice. It just seems to be getting busier and busier. It’s probably my favourite pressure point because it’s so crazy and it’s so photogenic too. But that was the last shout if you like of that era, although no one knew that would be the case at the time. 

It might be one of the first cities that comes to mind when thinking about the threats to places and negative impacts of tourism, but there are many other places under threat, like Barcelona and even the Isle of Skye. Last summer I was up there and it’s completely mobbed and there are big queues. The walks we went on 15 years ago are now crowded. It’s not just Venice and Barcelona, it’s this sort of place too. 

Why is it important for you to show things and people as they are, to depict reality?  

Because the reality is very engaging. There is that contradiction between the myth and reality. There are travel pictures in magazines, but the idea of travel magazines is to sell holidays, so everything looks nice and perfect. You’re not going to show a scene where people are being mobbed or where it’s absolutely jam-packed. That doesn’t fit in. You have to sell dreams. 

Is it part of your role, as a photographer, to expose and reveal the problems caused by tourism? 

I have a documentary responsibility, because I’m fighting propaganda, which we’re surrounded by, constantly, on all fronts, whether it’s food, fashion, travels, family life. My job is to show it how I find it, which is obviously very different. I like that on one level my pictures are just quite whimsical, with bright colours, they hopefully look good on the page. And then, there are other things going on should you choose to look; there is a more serious message if you wanted to dig and find that. I make serious photographs disguised as entertainment. I try to point out when I find universal truths. Truth is subjective, but it’s the world how I found it. 

‘It’s probably my favourite pressure point because it’s so crazy and it’s so photogenic too’

People were shocked when you exhibited The Last Resort at the Serpentine in 1986. Has the response to your shots changed over time? 

The Last Resort was controversial when it came out, and it’s become less so now – we’ve just published its sixth edition, it keeps on selling. There’s always been an element of controversy in my pictures. I never quite know why, because I’m just showing things as they are, or as I find them, and I don’t see what’s wrong with that. If you’re in journalism and going out photographing war and famine, you’re not really up for criticism.

Does your interest in photobooks have something to do with keeping something that lasts?

Books come and go. Mine are mostly things that people come to me about, or I can look through my files, or it can be an update of an idea – a new edition of Small World is out now, with new images published alongside the classics from the original series. But yes, people don’t throw books away, so that’s very gratifying. Magazines, even yours, can be thrown away. Photobooks are not recognised enough. There has been a recent revival of interest, but their influence on photographers (me included) is underestimated. 

Death by selfie martin parr architectural review

Death by selfie martin parr architectural review

Death by Selfie, Martin Parr, Super Labo, 2019

What does your book Death by Selfie tell us about tourism today?

The selfie stick and the smartphone have become part of the tourist’s attire.  Many people have actually been killed by selfies, there’s even a section on Wikipedia about it. Venice was inevitably one of the first places where the selfie stick was on sale, but India is where there have been more deaths – from 27 in 2015 to 68 in 2017!

The introduction of the selfie stick is very convenient because previously I looked at the highly cropped site and usually had people’s backs to me – because they were looking at the site. Now of course looking is hardly part of it. All you want to do is get that photo. Now I’ve got people’s faces in front of me, and with the background as well.

We can observe similar phenomena and behaviours in completely different parts of the world. Do all tourists start to look the same?

Yes, of course, but I like my images to be of a place. Very often there is something in the background that allows you to identify it. Ideally, I’d have that easily recognisable. I prefer that it’s sort of obvious, a bit like a postcard. 

What do you make of the democratisation of photography on social media, and the ephemerality of images on these channels? 

I like that. I’m on Instagram as well as anyone else. You have to put up with the fact that there is a lot of mediocrity on these platforms, but that’s the price you pay. You need the bad stuff to understand the good. It’s scary when you see the stats, and how many pictures are uploaded on Facebook and Instagram every day, but it helps generate interest and does mean that the democracy is always increasing.

Death by selfie martin parr 2 architectural review

Death by selfie martin parr 2 architectural review

Do you think we consume places just like we consume images?  

Yes, I think we do consume places like we consume images. You can’t follow everyone on Instagram, there are billions of accounts. So you have to make your selection. If they are good photographers, they provide you with that powerful insight into the world, and their version of it.

‘We’re surrounded by propaganda, constantly, on all fronts, whether it’s food, fashion, travels, family life’

What is your take on souvenirs? 

I’m a bit of a collector. My souvenirs are the images, it’s to do with making sense of what is out there – rather than something ‘made in China’ then bought by the Chinese. Souvenirs are some of the products of mass tourism, because that’s where the new wealth is. The wealthier the country the more tourist wealth resides there. This is how you spend your extra money – or at least that’s how you used to spend your extra money. It’s too soon to tell how it’s all going to unfold, but it’s the biggest industry in the world, and it’s collapsed. Restaurants, cafés, airlines – there will be a lot fewer of them as and when we go back to normality. So many places have been entirely reliant on these new ways of cash coming in from mass tourism. There will be many victims.

Could we discover a more local form of tourism? 

Absolutely, that is a possibility. There’s obviously a green benefit as well. I’m sure Extinction Rebellion wouldn’t wish it on people in that way, but it is effectively putting forward their agenda and making it a reality.

Lead image: The Ocean Dome, Miyazaki, Japan, 1996 by Martin Parr

Death by Selfie, Martin Parr, Super Labo, 2019

Small World, Martin Parr, Geoff Dyer, Dewi Lewis, 2018 (third edition)

The Last Resort, Martin Parr, Gerry Badger, Dewi Lewis, 2018 (sixth edition)

This piece is featured in the AR May 2020 issue on Tourism – click here to buy your copy today