Magnum Photographer Martin Parr Steps Down from Festival Following Outcry Over 'Racist' Photobook

Magnum Photographer Martin Parr Steps Down from Festival Following Outcry Over 'Racist' Photobook

Documentary photographer and former president of Magnum Photos Martin Parr has stepped down from his post as the Artistic Director of Bristol Photo Festival following complaints that he edited a racist photobook.

Parr wrote the foreword of the reissue of a 1969 photobook by photographer Gian Butturini. Entitled “London,” the photobook was released in 2017 by Italian publisher Damiani. The concerns over racism were raised last year after readers noted that a photograph of a caged gorilla was juxtaposed with a photograph of a Black woman. 

As well as writing the introductory text, Parr is listed on the book’s cover as editor, something he observed was a mistake by the publisher. Parr signed numerous copies of the book.

Complaints were first raised in May 2019 by Mercedes Baptiste Halliday, a student who received Butturini’s book as a gift. 

After expressing anger on social media — and receiving a shrugging person emoji from one of Parr’s assistants in response — Halliday later picketed Parr’s exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Parr apologised in a reply to a tweet in December 2019. Parr has now formally acknowledged his mistake after pressure was placed on Bristol Photo Festival to address the accusations of racism. “I would like to unreservedly apologise. That this spread escaped my notice is inexcusable. I am mortified that I have promoted this by the support I lent the book,” writes Parr in a statement published this week. 

Halliday also received a direct response from Parr in which he expresses regret for his mistake, pledges to donate his fee for the book to a charity of Halliday’s choice, and invited Halliday to come and meet with him and his team. Halliday declined stating that given the antagonistic response she received when raising the issue, she would not feel safe.

In his letter, Parr also stated that he would ask the publisher to cease sales.

The Guardian reports that photography students of the University of the West of England, Bristol, have canceled an end-of-year exhibition planned to take place at the Martin Parr Foundation.

Parr is also under scrutiny for having written the text for a book of photographs by photographer Txema Salvans who disguised himself as a road surveyor in order to covertly photograph sex workers — many of whom are vulnerable and subject to violence and identifiable in the photographs. Parr described this method of photographing “prostitutes” as a “cunning deception.”

Lead image by John Ramspott and used under Creative Commons.

The original version of this article stated that Parr was removed from his post as Artistic Director. Parr resigned from his role, offering the following statement:

“I felt my continued presence as artistic director would provide an unnecessary distraction from the wonderful work being exhibited by the festival artists and that stepping back was the best course of action for everyone. This protects the festival from the accusations of my detractors. I also felt assured that the festival's aim for a Creative Committee to be realised earlier than planned would be the preferable option.
“I am deeply embarrassed having overlooked a racist juxtaposition of images in my foreword to the reprint of the book ‘London’ by Gian Butturini. When this was brought to my attention, I publicly apologised and I have since requested the book be withdrawn from sale. My fee for writing the introduction will be donated to appropriate charities.
“Throughout my long career, I have supported under-represented and emerging photographers. The Martin Parr Foundation (MPF) is a charity that was set up to shine a light on photography, to give young and emerging photographers a platform, and to champion the work of artists from all backgrounds. Photography should be a place for everyone. These values matter greatly to me.”

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jim hughes's picture

Thanks for the DIY journalism. And I'm not surprised to learn that this witch hunt was off the rails from the start.

A big problem for wannabe social justice crusaders now is that real racists are rare in today's world. All the big game has been taken, and it's hard to rack up a score in a zero-sum game in a target-poor environment. But they're helped by "journalists" who never investigate, just watch social media for anything trending in the target demographic with the word 'rascist' attached and then re-run it with their byline.

People like John Lewis knew what a "rascist" was. And they've done the heavy lifting.

Paul Freeman's picture

I bought a copy of the book a while back. The English translation in the book is as you describe. He adds "The blacks are sad. The blacks are good. The blacks are dignified." Not the words of a racist. Actually this book was the genesis of the mans career as a left-wing socially engaged artist. I think this photographer made the error of juxtaposing the images at least in part because of formal similarity. Maybe he meant to make a comparison at a moral level of the imprisonment as he saw it of the woman's social position and the caging of the gorilla. What he was not making was a racist moral comparison of equality. Today in the culture what matters is how the images are perceived, not how they were intended by the artist. However I would have found such a juxtaposition uncomfortable and would have avoided it even in the 1980's if I had been editing that book. Nevertheless if I had been asked to edit it for reissuing I would have tended to want to keep it as it was intended as a historically accurate work. There are other pictures of black and asian people in the book, none of them controversial, but there is a sense that some of them were not terribly happy being photographed, but then many street photographers would have had no career at all if they had not endured some resistance from potential subjects. Buttini also writes in his foreword "I was photographing them (the blacks) in Portobello Road, but they forced me to flee.

jim hughes's picture

An insightful comment; mine was overly sarcastic. Rather than ridicule people's attitudes and intentions, I should have done what you did: just get the real story behind the photo.

Ralph D's picture

As Toulouse Lautrec pointed out: Indecency is in the eye of the beholder. The book is a juxapostion of different photos taken in London with a variety of subjects and themes. It takes a perverted mindset to assume from the outset that the juxtaposition so heavily contested here is indeed racist. What is indecent and frankly outrigtht disgusting is that people with such a distorted mindset can dare agressing Martin Parr and that he feels obliged to play along. Any attempt from his side to defend himself would result in an endless social media harrassment torrent against him.

Paulo Mendonça's picture

Couldn't agree more with you. One thing is to combat racism, other thing is to take it to the extreme just like in this case...

anthony marsh's picture

Yet another victory for terrorist BLM "activists".