Arts, On Campus

FACES Breaks Down Capitalist Themes in Martin Parr’s Photography

Martin Parr’s later photography may be highly humorous and saturated, but visitors shouldn’t expect to leave without thinking a bit more critically about society. At the beginning of a lecture on Parr’s photography hosted by the FACES Council on Wednesday, Alicia Kang, co-director of FACES and MCAS ’22, said that she met a museum visitor who thought the exhibit presents a cynical view of the world.

“And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty spot on.’ But I think that’s what’s exciting about it,” Kang, a former Heights editor, said.

In the presentation titled “Tracking Capitalism Through Martin Parr’s Photography,” members of the anti-racist organization addressed capitalism and racism in conversation with Parr’s photography. 

On one wall, Parr’s image of women at yoga class flanked the audience members. A larger still of a baby in a shopping cart adorned the other. Other subjects of his photos include a self portrait of Parr emerging from a shark’s mouth, a fleet of tourists posing with the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a man’s bald head, and a cup of coffee.

The event took place within the halls of the new exhibit, Martin Parr: Time and Place, which opened in January. Famous in the United Kingdom for his documentary photography, Parr’s eclectic array of photographs depict a variety of different cultures’ social and political environments. Consumerism is one of the most prominent themes in the exhibit.

The FACES Council organized the event, and co-directors Kang, Ivana Wijedasa, MCAS ’22, and Brian Rudolph, Lynch ’23 presented during the event. 

The presenters started with the basics, asking the audience for the best definition of capitalism they could come up with. They agreed with a volunteer’s definition of capitalism as a society based in free markets. 

Capitalism relates to both the economy and politics of a society, Kang said. She explained that issues arise within the economic system when people with intergenerational wealth have unfair advantages. While capitalism provides motivation for innovation and can increase a society’s standard of living, it also creates a system that fosters unethical behavior in the pursuit of wealth, Rudolph said. This unethical behavior could take the form of exploitation of employees, greed, and materialism, among other things.

Rudolph also introduced a discussion of racism into the conversation about capitalism. He said that FACES looks at prejudice based on race or skin color as the first component of racism. While everyone can be prejudiced, not everyone has systemic power, Rudolph said.

Rudolph also noted that during the industrialism of the 1900s, the dangers of capitalism disproportionately affected women and minority workers. The group accompanied his explanation with a video titled “Is Capitalism Racist?” which said that racism is integral to the capitalist system.

Defining colonialism as the invasion and exploitation of one country by another, Wijedasa touched upon the relationship between capitalism and colonialism. She explained how indigenous inhabitants of colonized countries—often people of color—experience negative consequences as a result of the invading country’s desire for profit.

According to Wijedasa, capitalism’s emphasis on productivity fosters stress in workers, which some seek to escape from through tourism. While some people argue that the countries that travelers visit benefit from tourists’ wallets, it can harm the environment, alter culture, and foster a reliance on that tourism that does not actually benefit those toured countries, Wijedasa said. 

But she said that most of the profits ultimately don’t benefit the destination countries because of the phenomenon known as “leakage,” which means that revenue doesn’t help the local economy and only feeds into large corporations, such as hotel and restaurant chains. 

Kang prefaced the section analyzing Parr’s photographs with a disclaimer, reminding audience members that their artistic conclusions are subjective.

The group presented a series of Parr’s diverse array of photographs in a slideshow. The presenters juxtaposed Parr’s black-and-white images of people in fields with farm animals in the 1980s with some of his colorful stills of modern society in the 1990s. Kang observed that one conveyed nature-related business while the other’s eclecticism was rooted in commercial society. 

Wijedasa also recognized the consumerism linking Parr’s pictures of coffee, a baby in a shopping cart, and a woman looking at glasses in a store. She noted the disposability of products produced in capitalist society, remarking that most audience members would probably throw away their phones within the next few years.

“That’s what we do to make ourselves happy,” Wijedasa said. “Buy stuff.”

Wijedasa expressed her desire to communicate the relationship between Parr’s work and societal phenomena, including capitalism.

“I hope that people gain just a little bit of understanding of how they’re all connected—that we talked about capitalism, racism, colonialism, how they’re all connected,” Wijedasa said. “So it’s how they’re all connected and how Martin Parr kind of shows them connected in his work as well.”

Kang echoed Wijedasa’s hope of making people think critically about the society they live in. 

“I’m hoping that the presentation caused people to consider the effects of capitalism,” Kang said. “And I’m kind of hopeful that after the presentation, people think about it more in their like everyday lives, too.”

Featured Image by Aneesa Wermers / Heights Staff

March 20, 2022
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