10 Things Martin Parr Can Teach You About Street Photography

Martin Parr
© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Note: Photos used with permission from Martin Parr

As of late, Martin Parr is one of my idols in street photography. I love his never-ending passion for street/documentary photography (Alec Soth recently called him the “Jay-Z” of documentary photography)- and the thought-provoking images that his photos tell. For this article I will share 10 things that I learned from Martin Parr and his work that I hope will help you in your street photography as well!


1. Focus on sets, not individual images

Copyright: Martin Parr / Magnum Photos
Copyright: Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Recently someone asked Martin Parr in an interview about what his favorite photograph was. He simply responded by saying that it was a ridiculous question, as thinks about his photographs in terms of sets and projects, rather than individual images.

I used to shoot street photography in the “Flickr-mindset” which was all about going out and hunting for those incredible “Flickr-worthy shots”. You know what I’m talking about- those shots which (you hope) will get you hundreds of comments and likes, and the approval of everyone on the internet.

More recently I have switched from working on a single-photograph approach to a more project-focused approach. I feel one of the strenghts of working on projects is that it helps you stay focused, and also have more of a message and statement in your photographs. You can read another article I wrote, “How to Start Your Own Street Photography Project.”

2. Make statements about society through your photographs

Martin Parr
© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

One of the reasons why I love Martin Parr’s photography so much is that his photographs have strong statements about society – and always has a certain viewpoint or critique. Many of his photographs are funny, interesting, or sometimes downright depressing- but they make statemetns on society. He interjects his own opinion and thought into his photographs and shows how he sees the world – and challenges us to see the world differently as well.

I have recently started to understand that it isn’t enough to take interesting photographs. Rather, we should strive to take meaningful photographs.

When I refer to “interesting” photographs- I mean photographs that make us say “wow” from a visual standpoint. Photos that have strong lines, shadows, a good composition and so-forth.

However photographs that are “meaningful” make us think more about the situation at hand in the photograph. What is the statement that the photographer is trying to say through his/her photograph? Does it have an opinion? Does the photo have emotion or soul?

I feel that a strong image should be both interesting from a visual standpoint and meaningful from a humanistic standpoint. I feel that Martin Parr does this well with his projects.

One project of interest that he finished is a book titled: “Luxury“. In this book he makes the statement that oftentimes we find things like poverty and AIDS in Africa as serious social problems- but forget the problem of excess wealth is in society. Therefore in that book, he uncovers that social issue that we don’t often think about.

More thoughts on this subject on an article I wrote, “Why Street Photographers Need To Take Themselves More Seriously.”

3. Be obsessive

Copyright: Martin Parr / Magnum Photos
Copyright: Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

I recently shared a quote by Chuck Close on Twitter and Facebook on inspiration. I cut the quote a bit short (thanks to Mattias Leppäniemi and Alex JD Smith for pointing it out). Here it is:

“The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work.

All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction.

Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.”

― Chuck Close

As mentioned in the beginning of this article, Magnum photographer Alec Soth recently refered to Martin Parr as the “Jay-Z” of documentary photography. Parr is now 60 years old, but he hasn’t slowed down one bit. He is constantly hustling on commercial shoots and his own personal projects while traveling the world and exhibiting at the same time.

If you want to become a great street photographer, it isn’t enough to have talent. Sure it helps to have a good idea, but what I have learned from talking to many people is that it comes down to the hard work you put into it.

As Robert Doisneau once said, “Chance is the one thing you can’t buy. You have to pay for it and you have to pay for it with your life, spending a lot of time, you pay for it with time, not the wasting of time but the spending of time.”

If you also look at all the great photographers out there, they are incredibly obsessed with photography and nothing else. It is great to diversify your loves and passions in life- but if you already have half a million hobbies – I suggest cutting down and focusing more on the best hobby out there (street photography).

4. Think outside the box

GB. England. New Brighton. From 'The Last Resort'. 1983-85.
GB. England. New Brighton. From ‘The Last Resort’. 1983-85.

Martin Parr’s photography is incredibly unique- and I best heard in an interview about his work that goes something like: “When looking at Martin Parr’s photographs, the viewer is often unsure whether to laugh or cry”. Even when he was nominated to join Magnum, he was met with considerable controversy.

Regadless I believe he is one of the most creative photographers out there, and has done a ton of books on subjects that people haven’t thought about as much.

Check out his books:

  • Small World” – a look on the absurdity of tourism all around the globe
  • The Last Resort” – an apocalyptic view on middle-class English people vacationing in New Brighton. (One of his best)
  • Luxury” – unwrapping the society of the ultra-wealthy all around the world

Read more on Martin’s blog on photographic cliche’s here.

5. It is rare that you take a good photo

GB. England. New Brighton. From 'The Last Resort'. 1983-85.
GB. England. New Brighton. From ‘The Last Resort’. 1983-85.

Remember when it comes to street photography, not every one of your shots are going to be good. You are going to take a lot of crappy photos in order to make the good ones. Even Martin Parr stated n an interivew that he estimates that he takes “tens upon thousands” of photographs a year and prints out “maybe 15,000 of them” and, he adds, “If there are 10 good ones, it would be a good year.” – Link

I think few photographers are nearly as prolific as Martin Parr, and he (one of the greatest photographers out there right now) only gets 10 good photos in a year.

Of course we may take more than 10 good photos in a year or fewer than 10 good photographs in a year – but use this number as a ballpark figure to remind yourself that making a great street photograph is really really hard.

Takeaway point: Shoot as much as you can, but be ruthless when it comes to editing. Read one of my articles on “15 Tips How You Can Better Edit Your Work“.

During the last 5 years or so I have been shooting street photography, I think I have only taken around 5 photographs that I would feel proud of having people rememember me by after I pass away. However I am currently in the project of shooting for an entire year and only showing my best 20 at the end (in December). Remember, less is more!

6. Find the extraordinary in the ordinary

GB. England. New Brighton. From 'The Last Resort'. 1983-85.
GB. England. New Brighton. From ‘The Last Resort’. 1983-85.

In a recent Google+ hangouts interview, one of the attendees asked if he could give one piece of advice to aspiring photographers. Put simply he said, “Find the extraordinary in the ordinary”.

One of the beautiful things about street photography is that we don’t need to drive 10,000 miles to take a photo of a double-rainbow in the mountains or something like that. Street photography is all about the everyday people, things, and moments. It is often the most common and mundane things which make the most interesting and meaningful images.

Therefore if you live somewhere which you don’t consider to be the most interesting place and isn’t urban like NYC or Paris- don’t become discouraged. Look for the ordinary things in your everyday life, and shoot what is closest to you.

A piece of advice I read from Martin: “Change your approach. Consider yourself to be a documentary photographer and take this duty to record your family seriously.” – Link

Blake Andrews, a street photographer of In-Public, has shot great “street photographs” of his children growing up. See some of his work for inspiration here.

7. Get Close

Copyright: Martin Parr / Magnum Photos
Copyright: Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

When Martin Parr shoots street photography, he gets extremely close to his subjects and doesn’t ask for permission. The result is that he is able to get the shots for his projects that he envisions, and also gives the viewer a sense of “being there” in the midst of all the action.

Parr gives some advice and insight about shooting close in the two quotes below:

I go straight in very close to people and I do that because it’s the only way you can get the picture. You go right up to them. Even now, I don’t find it easy. I don’t announce it. I pretend to be focusing elsewhere. If you take someone’s photograph it is very difficult not to look at them just after. But it’s the one thing that gives the game away. I don’t try and hide what I’m doing – that would be folly. – Martin Parr – British Journal of Photography interview, 1989

“If you photograph for a long time, you get to understand such things as body language. I often do not look at people I photograph, especially afterwards. Also when I want a photo, I become somewhat fearless, and this helps a lot. There will always be someone who objects to being photographed, and when this happens you move on.” – Martin Parr

One of the great things about Parr is that he (like many other street photographers who get really close to people) is great at human interaction. He often talks to his subjects when taking photographs of them and comes off as very unthreatening – due to his charisma and way of speaking. Watch a video of him shooting below:

8. Exaggerate your photographs

Copyright: Martin Parr / Magnum Photos
Copyright: Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

In one of Martin Parr’s interview, he shared with the readers this quote:

“Part of the role of photography is to exaggerate”… Martin Parr

He elaborates in another interview:

“With photography, I like to create fiction out of reality. I try and do this by taking society’s natural prejudice and giving this a twist.”

I don’t believe that photography is ever objective- it is always going to be a subjective. When we decide to take a photograph, we make a judgement call on what focal length to use, how to frame the photograph, and what to photograph. Even more importantly, we decide what not to photograph.

For example I was in Beirut, Lebanon a few years back and did a small project on taking photographs of the old and classic cars there. I only took photographs of the cars with old-school “character” in all differing colors, shapes, and forms. When I shared the photographs with my friends, they told me that they had the impression that everyone in Beirut drove cars like that. I then tried to clarify and told them it wasn’t actually the case- that lots of people drove really nice cars like Ferrari’s, Lambo’s, and Mercedes.

Therefore realize that it is rare that photographs ever tell the “full story” – and are often exaggerated more to make a statement. Think about doing this the same with your photographs- and thinking about what sort of statement you are making with your photos.

9. Don’t get people to smile

Copyright: Martin Parr / Magnum Photos
Copyright: Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

A simple tip I picked up from Martin Parr is that below:

“Don’t get everyone to smile; otherwise you’ll end up with the same old family propaganda.” – Link

We are so conditioned to see photographs of people smiling in photographs- as that is how we typically get people to pose.

In street photography, the photographs taken shouldn’t be posed. However that doesn’t mean that every once in a while (when appropriate) we can ask our subjects to pose for us.

However if we ask our subjects to pose for us, a simple tip is to tell them not to smile. A nice line I got from Charlie Kirk is telling your subject, “Pretend like you’re getting your passport taken”.

Photographs of people on the street not smiling often shows them more in their natural state- and doesn’t feel so forced or calculated.

10. Experiment

Copyright: Martin Parr / Magnum Photos
Copyright: Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Don’t feel that you have to be pigeonholed into only shooting street photography one way. Martin Parr has experimented much during his photography career- shooting with 35mm black and white film on a Leica, medium-format color film, 35mm color film with a Macro lens, and now shoots with a DSLR camera.

He has also shot “street photography” by using a videocamera for the BBC in a program titled: “Think of England“. He essentially captured moments from British life (and inteviewed people) into clips – to give the viewer a better sense of a scene by hearing the sounds, more of the situation, and having more interaction.

See it below:

Don’t let your creativity be stifled by doing the same thing over and over again. Although I do advocate the concept of using “one camera and one lens” – still feel free to experiment using other types of equipment and shooting different styles. My suggestion is to do this for different projects.

For example, shoot for a year on a medium-format camera of environmental portraiture. Another year you can shoot street photography with black and white on a Leica of street scenes. Another year you can try out large-format of landscapes. I believe that working in terms of projects, it will help you keep your creativity alive- while staying consistent at the same time.

More Photographs by Martin Parr

Martin Parr
© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos
Martin Parr
© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos
Martin Parr
© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos
Martin Parr
© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Martin Parr Documentary

Below is one of my favorite documentaries on Martin Parr. It gives you great insight about Martin Parr’s photography, his life, and everything in-between!

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Further Reading

If you want to learn more about Martin Parr or check out some of his links interviews, check out the links below!

Follow Martin

More interviews

Huge thanks to Martin Parr for supporting the blog by letting me use his images.

What is your thoughts about Martin Parr’s philosophy on photography and approach in street photography? Share your thoughts and feedback in the comments below!

Read Comments

Leave a comment