How Photographer Martin Parr Has Captured Britishness in the Brexit Era
Despite admitting to a love-hate relationship with the country of his affectionately insightful images,
Parr’s work is frequently shot with a sense of humor that hovers uncomfortably between comedy and tragedy. Though the photographer embraces both high and low culture—his work can be found on everything from tea towels to swimsuits—he considers himself first and foremost a social documentary photographer, focusing on class, identity, and consumerism throughout his four-decade career. But the photographs themselves never tell the whole story; the viewer is always invited to bring their own ideas to the equation in a bid to understand what it means to be British in an era of globalization and mass migration.
Parr continued to document British identity with a keen eye following the Brexit Referendum in 2016, which saw long-festering prejudices and frustrations rise to the surface as British citizens voted to leave the European Union. In a survey of Parr’s work at the National Portrait Gallery in London, photographs from this period form a stand-alone section.
Whether you are pro-Leave or pro-Remain is certainly likely to affect your reading of Parr’s images: Where some will see uncomfortable examples of a rising nationalism, others will see an expression of cultural pride. While Parr, a committed Remainer and admirer of multiculturalism, couldn’t resist including a few pertinent metaphors in his images; he largely photographed what he saw with an impartial eye. As curator Phillip Prodger aptly puts it in the show’s catalogue, Parr acted like “a psychologist with a difficult patient, a camera for a clipboard, listening to our problems and how we feel.”
The exhibition opened a few weeks before Britain was due to leave the European Union on March 29th. With that moment postponed, and two sides clashing over the call for a second referendum, Parr’s images seem to encourage us to question how on earth we arrived at this point.
In his photographs from the Black Country—an area of the West Midlands which voted heavily to leave the EU—Parr captured the Saint George’s Day celebrations in 2017 in honor of England’s patron saint. Proud, unsmiling figures—their cheeks daubed in the red and white colors of the English flag—stand in front of nondescript houses also adorned in patriotic fashion. The setting is a marked contrast to Parr’s vibrant images of Muslims from Bristol breaking the Ramadan fast at Iftar, or the joyous Notting Hill Carnival in London, where a group of black women in feathered headdresses sit casually on the pavement eating take-aways.
The elderly—who, according to polls, voted overwhelmingly for Brexit—are a recurring feature in Parr’s body of work. One woman is seen walking past a gigantic supermarket advertisement for croissants, her eyes downcast as if she cannot bear to look at this culinary symbol of European cosmopolitanism. Another stands precariously with the aid of a walking frame, one hand grasping an English flag as she glances warily at the camera. Behind her, a caretaker of Asian descent smiles broadly.
While viewers don’t know the particular beliefs of the people in Parr’s photos, the photographer draws visual comparisons at a time when the debate over immigration has raised questions about the country’s identity. Parr himself was delighted to find and photograph a fish-and-chip shop—a bastion of Britishness—run by two young Muslim women, finding it, he has said, “a real indication of how the cultural communities have integrated into British society.” But he is aware that many do not share his view.
Parr shows that fear of immigration through a subtle metaphor in his photograph of Porthcurno beach in Cornwall. A group of people look to the sea, as if to distant lands, while a woman holding a child puts her hand to her mouth as she glances towards a red danger flag. “There’s just one little child looking back at the camera, and he’s sort of the future of Britain,” said Prodger.
Parr’s work may portend an uncertain future, but looking through his older work, it’s hard to miss the warning signs of what was to come.
His series of Britons abroad—particularly in post-colonial societies where their privilege is uncomfortably evident—reveal a desire to hold onto a past that never really existed: a fantasy past of afternoon teas and Sunday cricket, where Britain reigned supreme.
Parr’s photographs of the Establishment dressed in their antiquated finery also seem to emphasize an unhealthy love of nostalgia, which allows the elites who have often driven the Brexit agenda for personal gain to flourish. “I think those photos are among the most political Martin has ever made,” said Prodger. “He is very frustrated that certain levers of power continue to fall to people who’ve been to the right school or have come from the right family.”
However, Parr’s work tempers the frustrations with moments of warmth. His photographs showing groups of enthusiasts engaging in their favorite past-times, derived from a series of indents Parr filmed to be shown between programs on BBC One, are a particular joy. From Welsh bog-snorkellers in costume-party attire to Bhangra Dancers from Edinburgh, they reveal Britain at its quirky, eccentric, and inclusive best.
One image in the Brexit section of the survey shows a masochistic group from Bristol, who stand shivering as they wait to take their annual winter dip in Henleaze Lake. Prodger points out that the image is of “a group of Britons lining up to jump into an icy unknown”—a fitting visual metaphor, as Britain itself figures how to take the plunge.