Martin Parr, Cost of Living

The tradition of documentary photography is to shoot pictures of the Other, to enter an unfamiliar or foreign situation and reveal it to the outside world. Since photographers generally come from middle class backgrounds, the other is predominantly working class, developing world, poor, weak, diseased, abject etc. artists breaking with this tradition (of pointing the camera downwards, as Rosler put it) include Martin Parr, whose Cost of Living looks at his own middle class roots, and Karen Knorr’s Marks of Distinction, which turns the camera on the wealthier strata of British society.

Parr’s works are in his typical cynical, exposé style – seemingly innocuous, but bitingly tongue-in-cheek, he seems to be able to make the British appear exotic even to the British! He is the equivalent of a National Geographic photographer looking for the idiosyncrasies that will make the magazine readers form their opinions about the native population in a glance, only his natives are the middle class British. This work is different from his other work, featuring working class subjects, since it is clear from the images that he is accepted in these settings and draws very little attention.

It is quite refreshing to see Parr’s humour injected into an otherwise deeply serious genre (documentary tends to be as serious about its subject matter as it is about itself). As Walter Benjamin reminded us about humour: “spasms of the diaphragm generally offer better chances for thought than spasms of the soul” (1998, p 101).

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