Chloe Chen / Gavel Media

FACES x McMullen Present: “Tracking Capitalism Through Martin Parr’s Photography”

On Wednesday March 16th, members of the Boston College community gathered at the McMullen Museum of Art for a discussion about tourism, colonialism, capitalism and of course, art. FACES, Boston College’s anti-racist student organization, hosted this event with the help of Martin Parr’s gripping photography. Martin Parr is a famous photographer known for his work depicting class struggles. Though Parr’s subjects are predominantly white, his photographs of Ireland and other tourist destinations throughout Europe show the exploitation of people and places through capitalism that is often tied with anti-racism work. 

FACES co-leaders Ivana Wijedasa (MCAS ‘22, she/her), Alicia Kang (MCAS ‘22, she/her) and Brian Rudolph (MCAS ‘22, he/him) gave a presentation titled, “Colonialism, Capitalism and Racism: An Unholy Trinity of Oppression," that tracked capitalism and racism throughout history. According to their presentation, capitalism expanded throughout the early twentieth century through the Industrial Revolution, worsening working conditions, especially for racial minorities. One of the biggest ways both capitalism and racism interact is through colonialism, which results in the exploitation of natural resources of non-European countries. The residual effects of colonialism today are most often seen through tourism, as oftentimes tourism further exploits natural resources of indigenous peoples. Though some may argue that tourism can help bring money to these nations, the money often does not come to the workers of that nation. These difficult topics were discussed in great detail, with a focus on how Parr depicts them in his photography. 

The Martin Parr exhibit titled Time and Place displays the photographer's earliest works. Parr explores pre-industrial Ireland in usually black and white photos of Irish farmers with their sheep and goats. McMullen describes the first section of his work as "Parr’s Irish photographs, which describe the radical evolution of Ireland over the last four decades and the major themes of his work—social class and consumption, curiosity and humor, humanity and its predictable idiosyncrasies." The FACES leaders pointed out the capitalism portrayed in these photographs, especially in Abandoned Morris Minors, Arigna, County Roscommon, 1980 and Abandoned Morris Minors, Askeaton, County Limerick, 1981. These photographs show abandoned cars in fields and water, decaying. Referencing overconsumption, Parr asks the question: what happens to the objects we no longer need?

Continuing through the exhibit, Parr starts to photograph in color the rise of consumerism in Ireland. The inclusion of color shifts the focus of the photographs from people to material objects. One of the most striking picture comparisons is the flat white that sits directly above the photograph of traditional Irish food. By placing these two together, Parr is able to display the modernization and globalization of Ireland. Other photos make reference to consumerism, specifically showing people shopping juxtaposed to an Irish man confused by a new McDonalds drive-through. This section, titled, Buying Good Stuff, sits in opposition to working class Irish farmers. FACES leaders pointed out that we are still guilty of overbuying to a more extreme extent today. People constantly buy things that they do not need, encouraged by capitalistic structures. 

The next section titled The Cost of Living depicts the upper middle class in England. Boys are seen in their prep school uniforms and summer conservative parties are dining outside. Again, Parr shows the audience the difference between the working class and the new middle class. Though everyone wants things, some people have better access to it. 

Some of Parr’s most thought-provoking pictures explore tourism. One section of the exhibit, titled The Last Resort, shows vacationers on the New Brighton coast. The accumulated trash and concrete structures stand out in Parr’s colorful photographs. At the time Parr took these photos, the British economy was deteriorating, yet people still searched for some relief. Capitalism encourages people to have vacations and spend more money, even if that is not feasible for everyone. Other photographs include tourists standing around the Parthenon, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Sphinx. In these photographs, Parr provides a commentary about culture and how capitalism often commodifies it, focusing on the human subjects rather than the famous wonders. 

Alicia Kang, FACES co-director and McMullen student ambassador, discussed the collaboration: “I think what’s interesting is that you can look at any piece of artwork, and if you think about it, you're like why are these people in this place? What are they doing? Are they trying to enjoy something to escape capitalism?” On her favorite painting she said, “I really enjoy the baby in the supermarket. I like the fact that it's just a baby abandoned while shopping. But the main point of that image is that the prices at the supermarket behind the baby are so high, and it's a juxtaposition between the immediate needs of feeding your child and the actual reality.” 

The Martin Parr exhibit will be open until June 5th. FACES’ next event will be held April 3, focused on student activism surrounding hate crimes on Boston College’s campus. 

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