Tourists on the march

Martin Parr uses his camera to capture the absurd moments of global tourism.

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All of us, in some way, have taken part in or been exposed to the “march of stupidity,” as fiction writer Don Delillo once referred to modern-day tourism. Magnum photographer Martin Parr has humorously photographed people being photographed or photographing others in his book Small World.

With sharp wit, Parr captures that which is absurd about the adventure-tourism industry that has grown from the ease and accessibility of air travel, starting in the 1950s.

These brightly colored photographs are a playful look, mostly at Western tourists, as they strive to be part of something larger than themselves, yet often resort to consumerism in an attempt to understand their surroundings. In one photograph, a man overlooking the Grand Canyon in Arizona, is wearing a native American headdress. In another photo, a white woman wearing a hip pack and a rainbow-striped Pharaoh on the front of her T-shirt stares at Gambian children as they trail behind the truck on a dusty dirt road.

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I heard Parr speak about “Small World” in San Francisco, along with another body of work, “Last Parking Space,” a collection of photos of parking lots around the world. The audience was full of documentary photographers, photojournalists, and art students. Someone asked Parr if it wasn’t a waste of time to poke fun at people with his camera when he could be working on humanitarian issues. His response was something along the lines of: “This is just how I see things.”

Communicating humor through photography is refreshing, and oftentimes far more difficult than capturing suffering and angst. Parr builds a satirical narrative by filling the frame with a juxtaposition of things and people: Hawaiian shirts, candy-wrapper-colored raincoats, ravenous pigeons, and hands holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Parr’s work comments on what can be the destructive nature of the tourism industry, but does so without moralistic undertones. Instead, it’s as if he is simply holding up a mirror, and saying, “Hey, look at this circus we’ve created.”

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