Documentary Photos Create Fiction

This photograph from "Small World'' series by British photographer Martin Parr shows a Korean tourist group taking a group photo in Acropolis of Athens, Greece in 1991. It is a cynical yet humorous take on the global tourism industry.
/ Courtesy of Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

By Seo Dong-shin
Staff Reporter

The power of photography can come from diverse reasons. It could be about capturing beautiful compositions of "decisive moments'' as Henri Cartier-Bresson did, or about jumping into battlefields to record the violence of war as in the case of Robert Capa.

Or it could be about an attitude laced with wit and satire; a mindset that would fit a sociologist, as leading British photographer Martin Parr's. Parr's retrospective, the first to be held outside Europe, is underway at the Hangaram Design Museum at Seoul Arts Center in southern Seoul.

Parr, a member of the Magnum Photos Agency, is a documentary photographer. But his photography is not an objective reflection of reality. The 54-year-old once said: "With photography, I like to create fiction out of reality. I try and do this by taking society's natural prejudice and giving this a twist.''

With photographs taken with this attitude, viewers cannot but strongly feel the presence behind the viewfinder that chooses to push the button at one particular moment from that particular angle. Whether you like the result or not would become also a matter of individual political and social stance as much as it is a matter of taste like with music or literature.

Parr's "Retrospective 1971-2000'' begins with black-and-white photographs, shot mostly in Greater Manchester, Yorkshire and Ireland during the 1970s. Selected from his projects such as "June Street,'' "Beautiful Spots,'' and "Bad Weather,'' they reveal quintessentially English lifestyle and location. But Parr's "twist'' streak is also to be observed in the photographs such as that of a girl in a mental hospital standing beside lilies, or an elderly lady sipping tea sitting under Jesus in a "Last Supper'' painting.

Parr's photography grows colorful in the 1980s, as seen in "The Last Resort'' and "The Cost of Living'' series. His critical approach toward the contemporary society's characteristic features such as consumerism and global tourism becomes more noticeably embedded in the photographs. "The Last Resort'' is also a historic record about New Brighton, the decaying seaside town that once was a favorite vacation spot for the English working-class. "The Cost of Living,'' meanwhile, looks closely at and does a satirical take on the desire, luxury, and pursuit of pleasure by the middle-class in mass-consumerism society.

Satire or irony without humor would be too dry. Parr's "Small World'' series cynically, yet with humor, exposes the absurdness of global tourism. "Common Sense'' series shows universal trivialities such as fast food and cigarette butts in Technicolor. It gives viewers a feeling of being too much, even scary, perhaps in the way the consumption and waste generated by the contemporary world does.

Parr studied at Manchester Polytechnic. In 2004, he became professor of photography at the University of Wales. At this Seoul show, more than 200 photographs, including a number of photographs taken in Pyongyang and the border village of Panmunjom, are on display. The exhibition continues until May 30. Tickets cost 6,000 won for students, and 10,000 won for adults. Across Parr's exhibition venue, a retrospective of Robert Capa is also underway at the Hangaram Design Museum. For more information, visit or