Online editing creates idealised and potentially dangerous images of women, warns Martin Parr

·5 min read
Martin Parr has revealed that people find his documentary work 'upsetting' because it is realistic and unflattering - Lee Thomas/Lee Thomas
Martin Parr has revealed that people find his documentary work 'upsetting' because it is realistic and unflattering - Lee Thomas/Lee Thomas

He is renowned for capturing quintessentially British scenes with his camera, and for decades has depicted us with ice-cream dribbling down our faces, blistered flesh at the seaside and revelling in boozy street parties.

Yet Martin Parr has revealed that people find his documentary work “upsetting” because it is realistic and unflattering. Furthermore, he blames “dangerous” social media filters for rendering us “so used to seeing the idealised view of everything”.

In an interview with The Telegraph, he criticised editing tools for emphasising the “idealised image of how women should look”, instead of “normal women”.

Showing things as they really are

Speaking of the responsibilities of tech companies at his gallery, the Martin Parr Foundation, in Bristol, he added: “I don’t think you can fight it.

“And you can't stop people touching up images that are going to be published in a fashion magazine. But it just means the idealised way in which a woman looks is so far apart from how most young girls and women do look.

“That is potentially a bit dangerous. That's why I like doing my own work because I show things as they really are.

“Sometimes people find this upsetting because we're so used to seeing the idealised view of everything.

“It’s so far-distant from what the reality is. When they look at these idealised pictures, it makes them feel inadequate, and it makes them feel insecure, which often has, you know, knock on effects like suicide, you know, or food and body image issues, so that's, that's the dangerous side of it, I'd say.”

Martin Parr at his work station - Lee Thomas/Lee Thomas
Martin Parr at his work station - Lee Thomas/Lee Thomas

Asked whether he thought people altering their image on the internet was dangerous, he said: “I think so. Because you have this sort of ideal, idealised image of how women should look and of course, [in contrast], the normal woman.

“So that's why for example, when I do fashion [photography], I like to use real people as much as models because I just like the idea of real people doing these things.

“Models are great as well. But when they're touched up to sort of such a degree, it does take away the authenticity of what you're trying to do.”

In May, the Government laid out plans for its Online Safety Bill, which aims to protect social media users online. Under the plans for the new legislation, tech companies will have to remove harmful content quickly or potentially face multi-billion-pound fines.

Online Safety Bill

The Bill has prompted criticism that it either does not go far enough, or would censor free speech.

Regarding the dangers of promoting content that encourages suicide or unhealthy body image types, Parr, 70, added: “I don’t think you can legislate against that.”

The photographer was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s birthday honours in June last year, has published over 120 books of his own work and has edited another 30. His most recognisable themes include his eccentric and voyeuristic documentation of the English social classes through street photography.

In March 2019, his exhibition, Only Human, opened at London’s National Portrait Gallery, and included portraits from around the world, with a special focus on investigating what it means to be British.

However, for the first time - and in the name of “fun” and “experimentation” - Parr has erased subjects and objects from his photographs.

Martin Parr clutching a cushion displaying a picture of his younger self - Lee Thomas/Lee Thomas
Martin Parr clutching a cushion displaying a picture of his younger self - Lee Thomas/Lee Thomas

His collection of photos, ‘Tell Me You’re British, Without Telling Me You’re British’ comprises four of his iconic images that have each had key elements using ghd photo-editing tool, Magic Eraser on Google Pixel 6. The results mean that the four selected images no longer contain his iconic motifs of people queuing, prices on strawberry punnets or baked goods.

Yet regarding erasing aspects of his own personal photography in future, Parr said that he will continue to stick to the “pure picture” and only remove elements when shooting fashion or commercial photography.

“Although you can potentially join two parties together, [erasure] never has the same ring of authenticity that the real original image would have… It was a fun exercise rather than anything else. But it was amazing and impressive to see how quickly and accurately it was edited.”

Regarding his photographic legacy, Parr stated his aim was to leave an archive of his time in Britain over half a century - a real history, as opposed to an “idealised” version.

'Idealised history'

“It’s for future generations to look at, and have a better understanding of what was happening on the ground, as opposed to our idealised history. And you know, histories are always changing, they’re pretty fluid. But yeah, that's a documentary responsibility I feel I have.

“So that's why I would photograph ordinary things that people wouldn't, like a supermarket, I would go into and think: ‘what a great place to photograph’, or a petrol pump station, and when I look at the ones that I did in the 80s of things like that, of course they look entirely different now, and no one would think that that would have any value, but I believe it does.

“You know, many of my colleagues in Magnum have been in Ukraine and are documenting that which is also important. But of course, it's not something I want to do. I photograph ordinary life. I'm as well down a supermarket as I am on the battlefield. And I think they're just as relevant. And there's always that impulse to cover global disasters, and rightly so. But you know, there's less impetus to photograph a supermarket or a high street or simple events that are happening all around the country.”

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