Humphrey Spender, Funeral, street scene man with glasses in foreground, 1937
Humphrey Spender, Funeral, street scene man with glasses in foreground, 1937

Martin Parr wants you to shoot a funeral

As part of The Photographers' Gallery Mass Observation exhibition, Parr has issued 'Directive 2'

Mass Observation: This Is Your Photo, at The Photographers' Gallery's offers great insights into both 20th century British life and the efforts of those who tried to record it. As we explained in a previous story, the post-war effort to offer "an anthropology of ourselves" asked respondents to send in reports from their daily lives, in an attempt to build up a near-scientific picture of how Britons people truly lived."

To coincide with the show, The Photographers' Gallery, in conjunction with The Guardian newspaper's crowd-sourcing service, Guardian Witness, have revived the scheme, with a series of directives, akin to those issued by Mass Observation. The first, sent out at the beginning of the month, asked respondents to send in pictures of their mantelpieces. You can view the results of that request here.

 

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This week, Magnum and Phaidon photographer Martin Parr has issued a slightly more challenging directive: to photograph a funeral. “One of the most memorable images in the current Mass Observation show is the Humphrey Spender photo of the funeral [above], with a man holding a coat looking at the proceedings,” he says.

 

Back in 1937, Spender took a sequence of photographs of a funeral in Bolton, in the north of England, following the mourners on their journey to Heaton Cemetery. He found it a difficult task admitting, “I suffered very much from a feeling that I was exploiting grief”. Martin Parr has also called his own directive a "tough task" adding "but who wants an easy assignment?"

“We live in a society where there are unwritten rules about photography and one of them is that it's perfectly okay, even encouraged, to shoot photos at a wedding, but not at a funeral,” Parr continues. “Our job, if we have any value as documentary photographers, is to question these rules.”

 

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It's a simple, yet fitting brief for a photographer clearly willing to cause discomfort in order to get an honest shot. To upload your images, go here, and to see Parr's own rule-breaking documentary photography, take a look at our Martin Parr monograph, the first charting the career of the Magnum photographer and also Martin Parr, our forthcoming pocket-sized primer on the Bristol-based photographer.

It features an introductory essay by Sandra S. Phillips, the highly regarded curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and assesses Parr’s contribution to photography providing a witty, insightful analysis to the photographs. You can find it on pre-order here