Legendary British documentary photographer, Martin Parr, has resigned as the artistic director of the Bristol Photo Festival, due to his involvement with re-publishing a ‘racist’ photo book.
In 2017, Parr wrote an introduction for a facsimile re-issue of London, by Italian photographer Gian Butturini, originally published in 1969. He was also credited as editor of London, ‘though I didn’t make changes to the book’, which contains a spread juxtaposing a black woman next to a caged gorilla.
London is described by Huckmag as a ‘voyeuristic look into the lives of 1960’s Londoners’. Gian writes in the original introduction: ‘This diary of images – my London – arose from an inner impulse, as sudden and violent as a stone thrown at my head; it was born without a plan, without a constraint, as “true” and alive, coherent and incoherent, grotesque and pathetic, as contradictory and consequential, galvanising and opaque, sneering and weeping as the life of the metropolis itself.’
It’s not entirely clear what intention Butturini, who died in 2006, had by juxtaposing the ticket inspector next to a gorilla. But it’s baffling that even in 1969, there wouldn’t have been alarm bells regarding the racist overtones, as it infers a comparison between the two subjects. Parr, who wrote in the 2017 intro ‘Butturini wanted to make a politically charged book’, may have harmed his late-stage career and was called on to justify his association.
In a public apology, Parr states it’s inexcusable the spread ‘escaped my notice’, and he’s ‘mortified that I have promoted this by the support I lent the book’.
‘I am aware that I have a position of influence in the world of photography and have been reflecting on the fact that I have responsibilities, not just in my own work and what I say about it, but in how I curate, promote and write about the work of other people. I have undoubtedly made mistakes and I am truly sorry for these and for any offence caused. ‘
He’s calling for the existing copies of the book to be removed from sale and destroyed, and is donating the €1000 pound fee he received for writing the introduction to a relevant charity. Likewise, he apologised directly to the student activist, Mercedes Baptiste Halliday, who spearheaded the campaign against Parr for his association with the photo spread for over a year.
Parr wrote to Halliday: ‘I am embarrassed that the racist juxtaposition was overlooked. Believe me it was a mistake and I am truly sorry. 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. I am looking to learn and change and hopefully use my position of influence to do some good in this situation. I really am truly sorry.’
The 68-year-old photographer is a well-known lover of photo books. In 2017, London’s Tate Modern acquired his famous collection of 12,000 photo books. During his long and high-profile career, Parr has authored 110 books and is known for having the odd brush with controversy – mostly due to his ‘exploitative’ (but not ‘racist’) pictures. As one of Britain’s most celebrated contemporary documentary photographers, he’s always bounced back, as his work is considered overwhelmingly significant.
The Magnum photographer has upcoming involvements with two progressive Australian photo festivals, Photo 2021 and the Ballarat International Foto Biennale (BIFB). At Photo 2021, Parr will visit to collaborate with Spanish artist, Christina de Middel, on a new commission at the RMIT Project Space as part of Magnum Live Lab. He’s also involved with a Magnum workshop. At BIFB, he’s appointed to curate its photo book library at the new National Centre for Photography.
Both event organisers have waxed lyrical about their commitment to progressive values. In 2015 BIFB chose to exclusively show documentary photography by ‘local’ photographers; and Photo 2021 is ‘committed to making our activities inclusive and celebrating diversity in our programming’.
Amid the so-called ‘cancel culture’ – a movement by socially progressive activists predominantly on Twitter, who lobby organisations toward cutting ties with individuals deemed problematic – Parr is heading towards cancellation. Following his resignation from the inaugural Bristol Photo Festival, students from University of West England also cancelled an end-of-year exhibition at the Martin Parr Foundation.
It’s a new phenomenon that Parr, a non-threatening elderly Englishman who would remind many people of their grandpa, has become a face of contemporary racism.
‘(Martin Parr) represents a generation of white, middle-aged men who do what they want without any consequences,’ said Halliday. ‘He is the institution, and we are only beginning to dismantle it.’
Likewise, videographer and online activist, Benjamin Chesteron, described Parr as a ‘disastrous choice’ for the role of Bristol Photography Festival artistic director due to his ‘visual illiteracy’.
‘It’s right that he was removed. I believe the future of the festival depended on it. You can have Martin Parr as artistic director. You can have an inclusive photo festival. You just can’t have both.’
It’s an ambitious claim to suggest an individual of Parr’s profile isn’t a fitting choice for artistic director, stemming over this unfortunate incident peppered with others Chesteron has exposed on Twitter.
Parr’s contributions to photography are vast. However it’s now up to various affiliated organisations to decide whether he’s deserving of forgiveness, or if his legacy has been tainted to the point where it’s too dangerous to have an association with him.