The collector: Martin Parr, Magnum Photographer, UK.
The collection: Osama Bin Laden ephemera.
As well as being an accomplished and highly regarded documentary photographer and photojournalist, Martin Parr is also a well known collector of unusual objects. He was kind enough to allow us to interview him and share his thoughts regarding a collection that has recently been brought to a 'conclusion'.
The story behind the collection...
Martin Parr describes himself as having 'a very strong collecting gene'. In 2008 he published 'Objects', a book which comprehensively documented objects he had collected over a twenty five year period, and which echoed some of the themes of his work as a photographer.
The first 'personality-led' objects that Parr collected were mugs and other objects associated with Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s. As a counterpoint he also collected items from the Miners strike of 1984-85. Since then he has gone on to collect Saddam Hussein watches, memorabilia produced to commemorate the inaguration of Barack Obama and Osama Bin Laden ephemera.
Parr sees the Bin Laden ephemera as a continuation of his other collections associated with powerful political leaders. "It's the same collection, but a different chapter," he told us. "I've finalized it with the Bin Laden is dead stuff."
Where would the Bin Laden items have been made?
"Some are made in China, some of the watches are made in Switzerland. Most things are made in China, especially if it’s crap! They make a lot of crap for the world and they make a lot of high quality things too… they make everything!"
The Bin Laden ephemera has been exhibited as part of the Planet Parr and Parrworld shows (which have had four mutations) and more recently in Prague.
"People ask me about it a lot," says Parr.
What's the general reaction to them?
"You never know what people’s reaction is, just sort of muffled laughter I suppose."
Does he ever experience negative reactions to some of the more controversial objects in his collections?
"No, they are just shadows of former dictators and tyrants."
Was it the Thatcher ephemera that started it all off?
"Yes, I was so amazed that anyone would have a plate or a mug with her picture on that it kicked me off into collecting it."
Does he have anyone else in mind to collect now that Bin Laden is dead?
"Well I’ve just got a whole load of Gaddaffi watches. There’s not so much for Gaddaffi though, I think I’ve got about 5 watches. They are made in Libya. I’ve got some with the number of years he had been a dictator for - annual watches. I think 41 was the last one, someone had one on ebay - he wanted a lot of money for it though."
What about after Gaddaffi?
"I don’t give it a moment’s thought. I haven’t been into Gaddaffi that much but in the recent weeks and months it’s seemed the right time to do it."
Parr readily admits that he has a prodigious ebay habit. "Ebay is a glorious source, I keep an eye on it for whatever is my current interest."
What's the most he will spend when bidding on ebay?
"Well, I’m not going to spend $500 on a Gaddaffi watch, but I will spend over $100. I have spent maybe $200 on a set or quantity but I don’t think about the money."
Would he ever trade them?
"If I ever knew anyone to swap Saddam Hussein watches with I might, but I’ve got all the common ones, so it’s unlikely."
Although it is often the more eccentric objects he collects that provoke the most interest, Parr describes ephemera, photographs, prints and books as his main collecting passion. He has a large collection of photographic books and in recent years has also built up a significant collection of prints by other British documentary photographers, which he talks about in a series of videos produced to accompany his Parrworld exhibition at the Baltic in Gateshead.
It's not too difficult to see the link between Parr's collections and his work as a documentary photographer. Like photographs, the objects in his collections are frequently the items that are left behind after momentous (and not so momentous) events begin to recede into history. "They are the shadows of human foible."
Objects by Martin Parr, published by Chris Boot, 2008.
All images Martin Parr /Magnum Photos © 2011 and used with kind permission.