David Moore reviews 'Small World' by Martin Parr

Published by Dewi Lewis Publishing

A review by David Moore for Photoworks Magazine

We are in the Gambia looking out of the back of a Landrover: tough, open topped and safe. As we rattle and bump along the dusty track, four or five young Africans chase after us. We see them, in our mind’s eye, running from war disease, and for their lives. Our vehicle throws dust in their faces as we casually observe from our position of security. The scene is framed or us by a camouflaged arm, a military arm, profiteering from our co-operation. The metal bar which would normally support a tarpaulin cover becomes a weapon to protect us. We might imagine that our holiday maker on the left of the frame, with his zoom lens SLR, is seeking a few extra holiday souvenirs, firing off a few last shots, cropping around desperate faces, his
young white female companion, recoiling, but compelled to look. As we close the book of Small World, the word ‘Boy’ on the opposite page snaps shut on the young Africans face.

In Martin Parr’s latest book and major project, only a handful of images have such economic and cultural resonance. As a photographer, Martin Parr is concerned solely with surface appearance, although occasionally, he creates images which hit exactly the right spot and perpetually reverberate. ‘Pattaya, Thailand’ suggest to us a similar inequality of relationships, the trade in holiday souvenirs continuing, as what appears to be a European holiday maker getting to grips with some local culture in the form of a younger Thai woman.

From here, we visit Germany, no hang on, I mean Japan. The ‘Happy Kingdom German theme Park’, whereupon we observe a happy camcording mother dutifully recording an authentic replica of Germanic period decor. As Umberto Eco said, why bother with the original when you have an original fake?

In Small World cultures are commodified, confused and thrown up in all sorts of places, the thing is that we now expect to find a McDonalds in Thailand, and for that matter, everywhere else. Parr skillfully arranges this information into a narrative which is intentionally without principle or law, but is no revelation. The big problem with Small World is that work inconsistently spans eight years. Although specific trips were made to carry out this work, the impression is, that for purely logistical reasons some locations were included just because Parr happened to be there. Because of this certain images seem to be token inclusions, not greatly contributing to the whole.

Martin Parr’s trademarks are witty and intelligent observations of late C20th goings on. His satirical approach and uncompromising intentions account for popularity and accorded respect. For my money his work succeeds when it becomes more politically charged and delivers a harsher, more relevant and less cynical version of ourselves, one which doesn’t give itself up too easily. With this project, few enigmas appear unless borne by the medium itself. Like his subjects, from Global hippies to Packaged families on the continent, Parr appears to glide over the surface tension of the world only hanging together for the sake of re-appropriated translations of the past.

There appears to be no escape.