While British Prime Minister Boris Johnson fights with all his might to impose a No Deal Brexit for October 30th, even putting at risk his country’s democracy, photographer Martin Parr, to whom the June 23, 2016 vote for “Leave” dealt a massive blow, draws a portrait of a kingdom that has never been less united.
Standing before his acerbic photographs, you simply have to smile. Fascinated by British identity, which he finds both attractive and repulsive, this disciple of vernacular photography, a chronicler of daily life, has been shooting images of his compatriots since the 1970s. His shots embody the impacts of globalization—mass consumption and tourism, migrations—, boredom, the kitschiest side of the British working class, as well as entertainment society at its most ridiculous, with a biting irony that has become his calling card.
And yet, the humor in his most recent exhibition “Only Human”, presented at the National Portrait Gallery of London, is more grating than usual. Beyond the cursory entertainment, the photographs translate a profound pessimism over the political instability that has gripped the United Kingdom. In fact, an entire room is dedicated to shots taken in “Pro-Brexit” regions: Black Country, Cornwall, Essex.
In this room, visitors come across a pit bull donning a small red and white coat – the canine clone of his owners dressed in St George’s Day colors-, red-faced Welsh farmers battling with undisciplined sheep in a contest, retirees meeting in a supermarket, or even a community of Cornwall fishermen, all displayed on equal footing.
For Martin Parr, a self-proclaimed “fervent European”, this encounter with the “Leave”-voting majority in more modest and remote regions may seem like a kind of “psychoanalysis”. But it also sheds light on the multicultural reality of a society that is more complex than it seems. The Cornwall fishermen, for example, contrary to popular thought, are far from being intransient “Brexiters”. Although the current European quotas do not always play in their favor, many of them know that losing trade deals with Europe could be catastrophic: they affect about 75% of British fishing.
If the artist seems satisfied with capturing the daily lives of ordinary people, his photos are not overtly political. The omnipresent Union Jack (flag of the UK) and the closed faces symptomatic of a Great Britain in the throes of upheaval, reveal concern about the future.
At the end of the exhibit, one title stands out, reminding visitors as they leave of the dilemma that has been tearing at the United Kingdom for three years now: “Leave” or “Remain”?
Translation by Maya Dalinsky
Cover: Martin Parr, Only Human, Phaïdon 2019.