Martin Parr is Under Fire for a Photo Book Reprint He Edited in 2017

A reprint of a 1969 photo book edited by Martin Parr two years ago includes a double page layout with claims of racist overtones, triggering a backlash against the famed documentary photographer.

Gian Butturini: esercizi di realtà, e non propaganda

Torna attualissima una celebre frase del fotografo Gian Butturini, in occasione della rivendicazione della sua "London" allo Scoglio di Quarto di Milano: “Tutti bevono slogans e si cibano di manifesti”...

Butturini razzista? Pensieri su un'occasione perduta

Pubblico qui una versione estesa del mio contributo al convegno "Butturini al rogo!" svolto a Brescia il 23 settembre scorso. Più ancora che un assalto politico e culturale, la polemica ormai nota come "caso Parr-Butturini" è stata a mio parer

English translation of the article by Michele Smargiassi on La Repubblica newspaper:


More than a political and cultural assault, the controversy now known as the "Parr-Butturini case" was, in my opinion, a gigantic missed opportunity.


For everyone. For those who declared war. For those who suffered it. Especially for those who love visual culture.

Long live controversy. Good for culture. When its goal is what culture exists for: understanding, knowing, building new culture.

This is not the end of the story, unfortunately.


You may already know the story. A summary for those who do not.


Over a year ago, the then eighteen-year-old British anthropology student Mercedes Baptiste Halliday jumped at the opening of a re-edition of Gian Butturini's book London, originally published in 1969, received as a gift from her father on her eighteenth birthday, when she saw on a double page the juxtaposition of a photograph of a black woman in the underground and that of a gorilla in a cage.

"Full-blown Racism" was the immediate sentence of the young black woman.

Then, "disgusted and outraged", in May 2019 she launched a militant campaign against the book and its curator, Martin Parr, defined "the Charleston statue of photography", in short a monument to racism; first by organizing a picket with some friends in front of the National Gallery where Parr's exhibition was being held, then by creating a dedicated Twitter account.

Parr fell in love with that book, "an unknown jewel", several years ago. He discovered it during a trip to Italy, included it in his impressive anthology of the best photo books in history, tracked down the heirs, and in 2017 convinced a prestigious Italian publisher, Damiani, to make an almost facsimile re-edition of the book, but he didn't stop there, he also had an exhibition at the Barbican, and promoted a talk about the book on the occasion of Photo London.

All things of which Parr, struck and sunk by the attack (demure but effectively excluded from the direction of the Bristol Photography Festival), then declared himself a few months ago, to the surprise of his admirers, totally repentant and guilty ("I am deeply embarrassed to have neglected that racist juxtaposition of images").


To the point of formally asking the publisher, but not only him, to withdraw the book from sale, after having donated to charity the compensation for its foreword writtten to the re-edition. but also to put it to the pulping mill, as his outraged accusers demanded.


An unconditional surrender, an admission of complete guilt, a true auto da fé (personal statement) that many have found humiliating. "The proof that criticism dismantles the system", Halliday triumphed.


And here we have, clear and obvious, the first missed opportunity. For months, the accusation of racism was underestimated; in the end, it was suffered without any reaction.


A few years ago in Bristol, Parr opened the dream and crowning achievement of his life, the foundation that bears his name. (Not unimportant detail, Bristol is also the city where the monument to the 17th century slave trader Edward Colston was recently demolished and thrown into the river). It is difficult to dispel the suspicion that Parr ended up giving in to very strong pressure, such as to put his creature in crisis.



I wonder what would have happened if someone, Parr for one, had taken the controversy seriously right away, and faced it with intellectual courage, for what it was: a dissenting reading of an author's work by a person or group who felt hurt by it.



It could have been the trigger for a discussion, even a bitter one, even a divisive one (strong discussions should not be frightening if they are intellectually honest) not only on that specific photographic work, but above all on the language of photography, its ambiguities, its limits when the relationship with justice, ethics and the politics of human coexistence is at stake.



Maybe that wouldn't have been enough. Another unpleasant impression of this story is that less and less disinterested and idealistic actors have gradually emerged on the tank of the controversy, that Parr (considered one of the ten most powerful men on the world photographic scene) was too greedy a target.


Perhaps it would not have been enough, I was writing, but at least the reasonable reasons would have been put in the discussion place, and the field would have been less free for the less explicit ones.


I still hope that the lost opportunity can be recovered at least a little bit. For example, I would like this meeting of ours not to be a sort of barricade of Butturini's friends and admirers in defence of the harshly stained honour of an author. This is also quite legitimate, let it be clear, but as far as I am concerned I would like to try to go one step further.


But let me start with an obvious statement. To say that it is absolutely legitimate to criticise a photograph, just as one criticises any statement, is to state the obvious: freedom of opinion is the abc of the dialectic of opinions in a free society.


I also say that not all criticism is based on assumptions. Not all criticism should be accepted just because it is made in the name of right values and principles. Any statement must prove that it is well-founded.


But now, mind you, I'll say one more thing. That if I, a white western male photographer, I, who believe I am anti-racist, "on the side of the last", convinced that I have clearly expressed this with my work, with my own biography, if I am accused by a young black woman and by others of having produced a racist image, then I, a white western male photographer, have a problem.



Or maybe two. The first problem I share with all the dominant culture of the image. Which belongs to a history of inequality and oppression that is difficult to deny.



And so, if I think I am a libertarian, anti-racist photographer, and on the side of the last, in front of those who accuse one of my works of having said all the opposite, I have to ask myself some questions. And I have to be willing to answer questions and question myself.



The history of photography owes many explanations to the social groups, populations, communities, societies and individuals to whom it contributed to exercise that domination, which was also of violent colonial and racial oppression.


Photography has also been an instrument of oppression, and if I, a white western male photographer, believed myself not to be involved in that story, I would be deceiving myself and others.


Of course, being a white and western male is a condition that I did not choose, but in which I was born: therefore I cannot be accused for something that I could not refuse to be.  If anything, I can be accused of how I chose to live this condition. Not for what I am, but for what I do.


And so, if I think I am a libertarian, anti-racist photographer, and on the side of the last, in front of those who accuse one of my works of having said all the opposite, I have to ask myself some questions. And I have to be willing to answer questions and question myself.



Now, Gian Butturini died in 2006 and is no longer here to give these answers. We can try, putting that controversial image back into the context of the work to which it belongs, recovering from the author's texts to reconstruct his intentions and the meaning he wanted to attribute to that juxtaposition.


I, for example, and I wrote it immediately in “La Repubblica” at the outbreak of the controversy, I remain convinced that the diptych of photographs put under accusation is not

"Full-blown Racist" as it has been claimed. It is certainly not in the intentions. It may not be so in its effects as well, lending itself to very different readings.


The intentions. A hasty reading of the biography and the work of

Butturini should have been at least cautious before assigning him to the field of racist prejudice: a militant graphic designer and photographer, a life on the hot fronts of his time, with the miners against Thatcher, with Basaglia against the asylums, with Allende against Pinochet, with the Saharawi people against the occupation of their land, with the workers against the white deaths....


Butturini was a no doubt sui generis protagonist of the generation of photographers of criticism and dissent, in the years at the turn of '68. With many contradictions, fascinated by different and even incompatible suggestions, real socialism and beat culture, Unità ( official Newspaper of the Italian Comunist Party) and Re Nudo, just to mention some....


It was on that business trip to London (he had to set up an exhibition stand for an American company) that he, a young graphic designer in the fashion industry, discovered the power of photography as an instrument of discovery and criticism of the world.


He walks around the city (London) taking anti-tourist, grainy, technically dangerous photographs, which he will then marvellously recompose with scissors and glue, contours and assemblages, in an almost wordless author's book that he will publish almost at his own expense, in his city, Brescia.


In London, he also discovered the racial issue, still in a low profile in Italy. He witnessed protest demonstrations and went looking for blacks in the suburbs. In his diary republished today, Daiquiri, he writes:
In England, black immigrants are apparently tolerated, practically marginalised. One only has to walk around London to realise how black people are engaged in the most humble jobs: street sweepers, bus drivers, labourers in urban excavations.

In the book there is a lot of attention to the racial crisis and its hypocrisies, there are other street portraits of black people, at Speaker's Corner she photographs them while "listening to a speaker telling the fairy tale of equality and racial integration". In the underground she photographs a black ticket office. It is one of the few images she mentions in the two pages of London's presentation:
locked in a transparent cage; she was selling tickets for the underground: an indifferent prisoner, an immobile island, out of time in the middle of the waves of humanity that flowed past her and mingled and parted around her prison of ice and solitude.

A description that in my opinion hangs on the side of empathy, and not mockery. But that gorilla on the opposite page? Butturini tells us something about him too, individually:

I photographed the gorilla in Regent's Park, who with imperial dignity receives the mockery and the peelings that his nephews in ties throw at him.


Yes, so the juxtaposition is deliberate, but the gorilla is used explicitly as a metaphor for dignity that resists mockery.



The content and the form of the book LONDON is characterised by being fully immersed  in the beat culture ( Its opening foreword starts with a quote  by Allen Ginsberg from the period in which the poet took part in the Black Panthers' gathering...); it is polemical and mordant, "incoherent, grotesque and contradictory", as its author admits "neither document nor history", an acid thrown on the face of the British society of the Sixties, a respectable crater of contradictions consisting of prejudice and rebellion, and on the capital of "an empire for sale".  


That juxtaposition, then, could not perhaps be the mocking materialisation of the crowd's gaze on that woman, which unmasks the stereotype by overturning it on the spectator.


The most elementary and assertive deciphering of that spread ("a black woman is like a gorilla") could give way to a statement of denunciation ("people look at that black woman as they look at a gorilla at the zoo").


Someone said that Mercedes Baptiste Halliday should have inquired about all these things, about who Butturini was, or should have at least read the whole book before launching her accusations. I don't know if she did it and had no interest in it, or eventually she didn't do it at all.


It doesn't really matter much. When one opens a discussion, even a harsh one, it is the discussion itself that puts on the table all the topics that complicate too simple judgements, adding thickness to superficial ones.


The problem is that at this very point there was no discussion.


Something has been lacking: The courage of the cultural mediators to discuss their choices, defending them or even admitting responsibility but in a context of open confrontation.


Above all, there has been a lack of courage to assert the right of a dialectical conflict.
The only thing left in the field is an aggressive way of claiming the own motives but

that becomes strong using the intimidating power of shitstorms on social networks; and an establishment that after all is willing to sacrifice a few hostages (in this case, I'm afraid it was Parr) in order to save the heart of its power.


And so the fact that I am personally convinced that I can demonstrate with good arguments that the image under accusation is not a racist image, excuse me, in my opinion this is an answer that at this point can also go into the background.


You have to start again from the questions that have not been asked, and have not produced the necessary answers. Which could not and should not be obvious answers, either in one direction or the other.


Well, once I've framed the problem, I'll start again with those questions.


If I were that white, western male photographer accused of racism, I would have to ask myself:


if the language I chose did not betray me. If the metaphors, the allusions, the references I used were appropriate to my intentions, unequivocal.


If the rhetorical tools I used (any language, even visual, has rhetoric) were not ambiguous.


If the medium itself I have chosen for my speech, photography, which is a polysemic, fluid, ambivalent medium, is capable of conveying my message clearly and univocally.


If what my images convey is really what arrives at those who look at them from within other human, ethical, political, historical experiences.


If the meaning I would like to give to my images today will remain the same even in ten, twenty, forty years.


Whether a right image for me could be unfair to others, or right today and wrong tomorrow, or right here and wrong somewhere else.


In other words, I should ask myself how great the historical, cultural, anthropological gap between an author's proposal of meaning and the social meaning of images can become.


In short, this controversy could open up an enormous theme, the uncertain political condition of images in public discourse. That is, how much it is possible to share without bias, without distortions and misunderstandings, how much a thought can be shared through images. A discussion that did not exclude any outcome. Not even, I hope, the rethinking of the accusers.


I believe that Butturini would have accepted this discussion.

Unfortunately, the climate in which the inviolable battles against gender, racial and class discrimination are developing seems to deny the discussion of the reasons at the outset.


What should be the possible final judgement, a missed discussion is placed as its indisputable assumption.

The sentence ("this picture is racist") is pronounced at the beginning and not at the end of the trial and cannot be appealed. The politically correct procedural code seems to provide that the injured party, prosecutor and judge are the same person.


This leads directly to the execution of the sentence. The device of which, unfortunately, tends to be the radical cancellation of the work under indictment.

In this case, as I have already said, the withdrawal from the market and the destruction of Gian Butturini's book “London” have been requested.





Fortunately, this did not happen. Even though "the accusations of racism against Gian Butturini's work and Martin Parr's work are unfounded", and reaffirming "the values of tolerance, respect and coexistence", the publisher accepted the request to withdraw from the market the volumes still in stock; but agreed to donate them to the heirs.


The book is materially safe (if it can return to the bookshop, it is still to be seen) thanks to the efforts of Tiziano and Marta Butturini, Gian's son and daughter, and also to the Butturini Foundation, and if anyone interested in having a copy can ask for it.


And here I want to put at least one point in my speech that I have deliberately left open: whatever the judgement on that juxtaposition of images, even if it were unanimous, cannot lead to the destruction of a book.


Destroying a book, any book, because it is guilty of something, is an act that should repulse the conscience of any person that loves culture.


Not only because the burning of books brings us back to the memory of historical epochs and evil regimes.


Not only because censorship is always an authoritarian and paternalistic act (I establish, giving myself the chance to read it, that you may not read that book to make up your own mind), an act that radically contradicts the claim to act in the name of justice and freedom.

But the fundamental reason why it is not right to destroy a work, a monument, a book, even the worst in the world, is another.

It is that the scenario of our culture would be filled with holes, empty spaces, meaningless, where history had put something that we are no longer allowed to know what it was, that we can no longer know, so we can no longer judge and therefore not even contest and refuse, because someone has arrogated the right to think for us. Not being able to know how the wrong thing was made and how it was produced, we risk that it will be produced again.


We need it to remain proof of who we are and have been. We need to know the past so that we can form an opinion about it that is useful for the present and for the future. Of the whole past: the good past and the bad past.

Books shall not be erased: they shall be discussed, and if they are wrong they are refuted and unmasked. And this can only be done through confrontation and also through the conflict of opinions, accepting the risk that one's own can be contradicted and refuted in turn, or, simply, that that book remains controversial.


The alternative path, erasing pieces upon pieces of a reality that we do not like, perhaps using the same mechanisms, the same power structures that produced them, can be a satisfactory compensation, but it will never be a restoration of justice: the law of the retaliation has never been just.


Butturini's book is here, therefore, for any of you, to be read, appreciated, challenged, accused.


I have never met Butturini and I am sorry for that. I met him through his work, his diaries, the stories of his friends and colleagues, and I got the idea of a man animated by many ideals, with many naivety sides and contradictions of which he was, I believe, aware.

There are excerpts from his autobiography which he writes with remarkable self-irony.


For example, I refer to when he narrates of how, after photographing black prostitutes in the south-west suburbs of London, he was chased by a gigantic black bodyguard whom, running away, Butturini shouted to calm him down: "Malcolm X! Martin Luther King! Angela Davis!", feeling "in a tragicomic version of a film by Alberto Sordi".

Then he smiled at a black mother with a baby on the underground, receiving a smile from her and thinking "peace is made" and "white people are undoubtedly worse".


I have the presumption to think that he would not have been afraid to face this conflict openly on a piece of his work as well, without arrogance, questioning himself, claiming his own reasons. Let's maybe do it ourselves in his place.


Distruggete, distruggete quel libro! È di Gian Butturini

Grazie Gian, A 50 anni di distanza un tuo libro è condannato a morte. Hai colpito ancora, duro, ed è una bella notizia. Per il tuo impegno fai ancora paura...

Caro Gian Butturini, non eri razzista chi ti accusa di te non ha capito niente - Strisciarossa

Una vicenda che si trascina da almeno un mese e che non so come si possa concludere.

The Butturini case, the Martin Parr case:

a question of culture and transparency.


by Vincenzo Cottinelli


How did the Butturini case start? In extreme synthesis: Gian Butturini's book “London” (Italian first edition in 1969) was reprinted in 2017 in English on the initiative and with an enthusiastic  forward by Martin Parr. 


A black Londoner student sees on a double page the juxtaposition of a photograph of a black woman in the underground and that of a gorilla in a cage. 

In May 2019 she starts a militant campaign against the book and its curator, accused of racism. 


The book is withdrawn from the trade, Parr, meanwhile boycotted in his exhibitions lost his  cultural assignments, declares himself repentant and admits he was wrong, asking the publisher to destroy all existing copies (which are instead delivered to the Butturini heirs).


To face the "Butturini Case" after the very authoritative essay by Michele Smargiassi on Fotocrazia is to be considered reckless.


Moreover, my words could be veiled by partiality due to my old friendship for Gian, in turn warmed by my affection for Mario Dondero, who was a great, unconditional admirer of Gian (the two of them were also on show together with their  reports on Africa at the gallery of the Ken Damy Studio in Brescia in 2016). 


Dondero came to Brescia for Gian's funeral, and we had a long talk  about Gian at dinner. A simple, solid fact bound them: the militancy in favour of the oppressed and the uprising people around the world, from the peasants of the Po Valley to the Cuban Communists. 

In my opinion, they also had in common a similarity of photographic style, both rough and direct, but cleaner in Dondero whereas unexpectedly "rawer" in Butturini  considering he was a graphic designer. 

But this is perhaps another matter, except that the photographs of both should be read carefully, like handwritten texts with sometimes hasty calligraphy. 


In order to examine Butturini's case, avoiding partiality or banality, I believe I must first of all adhere scrupulously to the “language” used for   the two incriminated images and let it  speak, listening to it, even in the context of the book, as a story of a stay in London: "these are the many faces of London, the splinters that circulate there, look what I happened to see" seems to mean Gian. 


Which in fact the author says  in his book forward  (in English in the edition edited by Parr) where there is also a specific comment to the two incriminated images. Looking at each image in detail, then looking for the meaning of the juxtaposition, of the layout that caused the book to be put at  the burning stake, this seems to me the correct way to proceed.


The "language" used for the first photo, when I read it, is very far from any idea of racism. The woman's body is, more than sitting, slumped on her sit, tired, her hands inert; her face, while remaining sweet and beautiful, expresses an infinite sadness, the resignation to a heavy, monotonous life, hopelessly stuck in a "work box" (the underground ticket office box, barely visible).

 She seems to look quietly into the camera. 

We don't know if she is a  second or third generation Londoner, or if she is  a recent immigrant. 


What matters is that Butturini's photo is not only affectionate, but it has the ability to make us share the tenderness he feels for this person. It is a compassionate photo. Could it be that compassion is racist? After telling us so, why would Butturini want to slap her coarsely with an insulting layout?


The second photo takes us to another creature, in another part of London, in another cage: the same continental origin, another product of colonialism even if disguised as exoticism (fortunately today this habit is being eliminated due to the struggles of animal rights activists). 


Exoticism that puts animals to life imprisonment, like this mighty, beautiful specimen of gorilla that, unlike the woman, seems to have a disdainful attitude for her senseless detention, for the waste that is thrown at the animal: it raises its head sideways with contempt, rather than with anger. Butturini also says so in his work notes, making us feel the atrocity of that exhibited imprisonment  and the dignity of the animal.


Is it offensive to the woman to approach two destinies in one page , direct or indirect fruit of the same European history? Certainly visually it is a strong blow to the stomach, but it is a powerful antiracist and anti-colonialist denunciation. Butturini has put together two serious images, nonfiction, two real stories, to show us evil, in two different forms but with the same white roots, to make us think. 


I find it surprising that this cultural choice can be likened to the coarse insult "you are a monkey" which has long been lying deep in the language of whites and has recently been used by a shameless Italian politician, a racist of the Lega party, against an Italian Republic Minister of African origin.


Conclusion: for me the two photos themselves are neither offensive nor racist - their juxtaposition is not only not racist, it is an anti-colonialist denunciation.


Of course, the opposite opinion is also legitimate, even the sharpest one. In the present times of the worldwide outbreak of intolerance, denial of rights, discrimination, it is acceptable that there are exposed nerves and indignant reactions on all fronts. However, when it comes to evaluating not a political action or an human behaviour, but a photographic or literary text, an editorial layout as an expression of artistic choices and narrative language, the general principles of freedom of opinion and artistic expression are involved (values that are important also for those who are discriminated today) and therefore the utmost caution is needed in clarifying the facts, that is the meanings of the images and the layout. In any case, the verdict determining the destruction of the book is unacceptable.


Indisputable is the position of Smargiassi denouncing the missed opportunity by the curator and publisher (the photographer is no longer there, but has left his thoughts on those two images) for not having opened a close debate in the immediacy of the denunciation of racism. I add: what about the photographic agencies? What about museums? (I have an imprecise but certain memory of requests for "purges" of works of art judged politically incorrect). And art galleries? And, on the other hand, who raised the case feeling offended? It would have been useful to "understand the misunderstanding". I don't know enough about the British legal system to know whether in such a case there are legal, civil or criminal ways to deal with the facts publicly, using civil methods. Is there a crime of racism in the UK?


Here we have seen legitimate direct political actions (marches, sit-ins and similar initiatives) and campaigns to mobilise public opinion, but as far as I know, nothing institutional or third party.


As for Martin Parr's behaviour, I agree with Smargiassi's consternation. I have known Parr's work for a long time: he is a great photographer of special intelligence and wit, of great irony and with a rare skill in capturing astonishing moments of everyday life, in every sense: comedy, desolation, paradoxes, loneliness, joy, misery, tenderness. 

I have in my hands his Early Works, released a year ago in Paris. A book that I recommend to street photography enthusiasts, a "jewel" (just as he defined Butturini's book). 


In about a hundred black and white photos taken between 1973 and 1983, almost all of them in Great Britain, Parr pokes, slaps, lampoons, discovers vices, laughs and makes us laugh, also caressing. He targets his fellow citizens, often comparing them to cows, horses, sheep, dogs, often in tender, disheartening, ridiculous or sordid postures. I exclude that he has had legal problems because of this.


 He is not that old, he is 68 years old, he is not fragile. What happened to him with the Butturini affair? Has he surrendered to stronger powers, he ? a cultured and powerful photographer? I don't know if we will ever find an answer. 

Great Britain, the historical home of the defence of freedom of opinion, has for some time now held surprises in store for us (remember the Salman Rushdie case? Condemned to death by the Islamic religious for what he had written, not everyone defended him; his supporters were harshly attacked, even by the so-called left parties, because “they were guilty” of offending the religious feelings of others). 

We trust that the debate, even if late, will continue and deepen; perhaps we will be able of understanding more, democracy would gain from it, as well as the dignity of the battle for equality and integration. And, why not, the creative freedom of photographers.


Il caso Butturini, il caso Martin Parr: 

una questione di cultura e di trasparenza.

di Vincenzo Cottinelli


Come nasce il caso Butturini? In estrema sintesi: il libro London di Gian Butturini (edizione italiana 1969) viene ristampato nel 2018 in inglese su iniziativa e con prefazione entusiastica di Martin Parr. Una studentessa londinese di colore vede in una doppia pagina l'accostamento fra la fotografia di una donna nera nella metropolitana e quella di un gorilla in gabbia. Nel maggio del 2019 avvia una campagna militante contro il libro e il suo curatore, accusati di razzismo. Il libro viene ritirato dal commercio, Parr, nel frattempo boicottato nelle sue mostre e fatto decadere da incarichi culturali, si dichiara pentito e ammette di aver sbagliato, chiedendo all’editore di distruggere tutte le copie esistenti (che invece vengono consegnate agli eredi Butturini).


Affrontare il “Caso Butturini” dopo il saggio di Michele Smargiassi su Fotocrazia è da temerari. Inoltre le mie parole potrebbero essere velate da parzialità a causa dell’antica amicizia per Gian, a sua volta riscaldata dal mio affetto per Mario Dondero, che di Gian era grande, incondizionato estimatore (loro due furono anche insieme in mostra con i rispettivi reportage sull’Africa alla galleria dello Studio Ken Damy di Brescia nel 2016). Dondero venne a Brescia al funerale di Gian, e parlammo a lungo di lui a cena. Li legava un semplice, solido fatto: la militanza a favore degli oppressi e dei popoli in rivolta, dai contadini della pianura padana ai comunisti cubani. Li accomunava, a mio parere, anche una vicinanza dello stile fotografico, in entrambi ruvido e diretto, però più pulito in Dondero e più “raw”, stranamente, nel Butturini di professione grafico. 

Ma questo è forse un altro discorso, senonché le fotografie di entrambi vanno lette attentamente, come testi scritti a mano con una calligrafia a volte affrettata. 


Per esaminare il caso Butturini evitando parzialità o banalità io credo di dovere anzitutto aderire scrupolosamente al testo delle due immagini incriminate e lasciarlo parlare, ascoltarlo, anche nel contesto del libro, come racconto di un soggiorno londinese: “queste sono le tante facce di Londra, le schegge che si trovano in giro, guardate un po’ che roba mi è capitato di vedere” sembra voler dire Gian. Che infatti lo dice chiaramente nella prefazione (in inglese nell’edizione curata da Parr) dove c’è anche uno specifico commento alle due immagini incriminate. Guardare ciascuna immagine in dettaglio, poi cercare il senso dell’accostamento, dell’impaginazione che ha causato la messa al rogo del libro, questo mi sembra il modo corretto di procedere.


Il “testo” della prima foto, alla mia lettura, è lontanissimo da qualsiasi idea di razzismo. Il corpo della donna è, più che seduto, accasciato, stanco, le mani inerti; il suo volto, pur restando dolce e bello, esprime una infinita tristezza, la rassegnazione ad una vita pesante, monotona, incasellata senza speranza in una “scatola di lavoro” (il box di bigliettaia della metropolitana, poco visibile). Lei sembra guardare in macchina tranquillamente. Non sappiamo se lei è londinese di seconda o terza generazione, oppure è di recente immigrazione. Quel che conta è che la foto di Butturini non solo è affettuosa, ma ha la capacità di farci condividere la tenerezza che lui prova per questa persona. È una foto compassionevole. Forse che la pietà è razzista? Dopo avercela raccontata così, perché mai Butturini avrebbe voluto schiaffeggiarla volgarmente con una impaginazione insultante?

La seconda foto ci porta un’altra creatura, in un’altra parte di Londra, in un’altra gabbia: stessa provenienza continentale, altro prodotto del colonialismo anche se mascherato da esotismo (per fortuna oggi in fase di eliminazione per le lotte degli animalisti). Esotismo che mette gli animali all’ergastolo, come questo possente, bellissimo esemplare di gorilla che, a differenza della donna, sembra avere un atteggiamento sdegnoso per la sua detenzione senza senso, per i rifiuti che gli vengono gettati: alza la testa lateralmente con sprezzo, più che con rabbia. Lo dice anche Butturini nelle sue note di lavoro, facendoci sentire l’atrocità di quella prigionia esibita e la dignità dell’animale.


Accostare in pagina due destini, frutto diretto o indiretto della medesima storia europea è offensivo della donna? Certo visivamente è un colpo forte allo stomaco, ma è una potente denuncia antirazzista e anticolonialista. Butturini ha messo insieme due immagini serie, saggistiche, due storie reali, per mostrarci il male, in due forme diverse ma dalle stesse radici bianche, in definitiva per farci pensare. 

Io trovo sorprendente che si possa equiparare questa scelta culturale al volgare insulto “sei una scimmia” che da tempo giace nel profondo del linguaggio dei bianchi e di recente è stato usato da uno svergognato politico italiano, razzista della Lega, nei confronti di una Ministra della Repubblica Italiana di origine africana.

Conclusione di fatto: per me le due foto in sé non sono né offensive né razziste – il loro accostamento non solo non è razzista, ma è una denuncia anticolonialista.


Naturalmente è legittima anche l’opinione opposta, anche la più netta. Nei tempi presenti di insorgenza mondiale dell’intolleranza, della negazione di diritti, della discriminazione, è accettabile che ci siano nervi scoperti e reazioni indignate, su tutti i fronti. Però quando si tratta di valutare non un’azione politica o un comportamento umano, ma un testo fotografico o letterario, un’impaginazione editoriale come espressione di scelte artistiche e di linguaggio narrativo, vengono in gioco i principi generali della libertà di opinione e di espressione artistica (valori importanti anche per chi oggi è discriminato e si sente offeso) e perciò è necessaria la massima cautela nel chiarire i fatti, cioè i significati delle immagini e dell’impaginazione. In ogni caso è inaccettabile la sanzione della distruzione del libro.


Opportunamente Smargiassi denuncia l’occasione persa da parte di curatore ed editore (il fotografo non c’è più, ma ha lasciato scritto il suo pensiero su quelle due immagini) per non aver aperto un dibattito serrato nell’immediatezza della denuncia di razzismo. Aggiungo: e le agenzie fotografiche? E i musei? (ho un ricordo impreciso ma certo su richieste di “epurazioni” di opere d’arte giudicate politicamente scorrette). E le gallerie d’arte? E, dall’altro lato, chi ha sollevato il caso sentendosi offeso? Sarebbe stato utile “capire l’incomprensione”. Non conosco abbastanza l’ordinamento giuridico britannico per sapere se in un caso del genere ci siano strade legali, civili o penali, per affrontare i fatti pubblicamente, con metodi civili. C’è un reato di razzismo? 

Qui si sono viste legittime azioni politiche dirette (cortei, sit in e simili) e campagne di mobilitazione dell’opinione pubblica, ma che io sappia, nulla di istituzionale, di terzo.


Quanto poi al comportamento di Martin Parr, mi associo allo sgomento di Smargiassi. Conosco da tempo il lavoro di Parr: è un grande fotografo di speciale intelligenza e arguzia, di grande ironia e con una maestria rara nel cogliere al volo attimi stupefacenti di vita quotidiana, in tutti i sensi: comicità, desolazione, paradossi, solitudine, allegria, miseria, tenerezza. Ho per le mani il suo Early Works uscito un anno fa a Parigi. Libro che raccomando agli appassionati di street photography, un “gioiello” (proprio come definì lui il libro di Butturini). In un centinaio di foto in bianco e nero scattate fra il 1973 e il 1983 quasi tutte in Gran Bretagna, Parr punzecchia, schiaffeggia, mette alla berlina, scopre vizi, ride e ci fa ridere, accarezza anche. Vittime / bersagli i suoi concittadini, spesso accostati a mucche, cavalli, pecore, cani, spesso in posture tenere, desolanti, ridicole o squallide. Escludo che abbia avuto problemi legali per questo. Lui non è tanto anziano, ha 68 anni, non è fragile. Che cosa gli è successo con la vicenda Butturini? Si è arreso, lui fotografo colto e potente, a poteri più forti? Non so se troveremo mai una risposta. La Gran Bretagna, patria storica del garantismo e della libertà di opinione, da qualche tempo ci riserva sorprese (ricordate il caso Salman Rushdie? Condannato a morte dai religiosi islamici per quel che aveva scritto, non tutti lo difesero; i suoi sostenitori furono duramente attaccati, anche dalla sinistra sedicente laica, perché rei di offendere i sentimenti religiosi altrui). Confidiamo che il dibattito, anche se tardivo, prosegua e si approfondisca; forse ne capiremo di più, ne guadagnerebbe un po’ la democrazia, la dignità della battaglia per l’uguaglianza e l’integrazione. E, perché no, la libertà creativa dei fotografi.


Vincenzo Cottinelli

Cancel culture | Gian Butturini messo al macero

Gian Butturini (1935- 2006) è stato un grande fotogiornalista italiano. Ha dedicato la vita alla fotografia sociale e si è sempre brechtianamente seduto dalla parte del torto. Riassumere la sua lunga carriera in poche righe è impossibile.



Riportiamo di seguito le parole di Giorgio Oldrini, ex sindaco di Sesto San Giovanni e inviato de L'Unità a L' Avana

Comunicato Camera del Lavoro:

Gian Butturini. Una vita dalla parte degli ultimi

Quello fra Gian Butturini e la Camera del Lavoro di Brescia è un rapporto antico, consolidato da una lunga storia di militanza e di condivisione di valori. Scorrendo la sua biografia ci si rende immediatamente conto del suo percorso artistico e d'impegno sociale e civile.

A voyeuristic look into the lives of 1960’s Londoners

Italian graphic artist Gian Butturini sought to capture the capital as he saw it, beyond the tourist spots and mini-skirts.

Foto "scandalose", la polemica assurda su Gian Butturini | di Claudio Bragaglio | - Brescia News

Sta scemando la polemica assurda che ha investito Gian Butturini per via del presunto "razzismo" delle sue "scandalose" foto. Per chi ha conosciuto Gian sa perfettamente quale fosse il suo pensiero. Non a caso sono state scritte anche a Brescia parole chiare ed esplicite in sua difesa

Message from Albert De Donder:


Good evening once again,  


few minutes ago I have send a message that I would like to receive a copy of this wonderful book. I forgot to mention that besides the amount of 40 euro, I am willing to pay for the cost of the shipping, no problem whatsoever. To make sure that everything is in order I send a copy of the email I wrote only minutes ago. I surely hope I can help. It would be unfair to destroy the remaining copies of the book. 


Here is the copy of the email: 


Hello, Good evening, if possible I would LOVE to order a copy of this fantastic book. What has happened with this book so far is really a shame. I want you to read a comment I published on this book: 


When you make a book you try to ensure that the juxtaposition of the photographs reinforce each other. Either you look for volume, structure, texture, atmosphere, whatever might be of use to make a strong graphic, visual statement. This statement will always be political. This is exactly what this juxtaposition is all about. When looking at the photographs juxtaposed I feel great respect for the pictured woman as I also feel great respect for the gorilla behind bars. This beautiful and lovely woman with all her love, hope and strengths and this great and strong and beautiful animal both are discriminated. To me any human being as wel as any living creature deserves to be respected at the very least. I feel pain and pity when I look at these photographs and I feel respect and a great deal of love, also I feel anger. If the pictures were not juxtaposed, they would be ordinary and meaningless, lost within the book. I agree with Robert Frank that the pictures are a necessity, you need them to tell your story. To me this juxtaposition has nothing to do with racism or disrespect, on the contrary. Let us not forget that beauty and anything one sees and feels is in the eye of the beholder. 

I would like to quote Robert Adams: The job of the photographer, in my view, is not to catalogue indisputable fact but to try to be coherent about intuition and hope. This is not to say that he is unconcerned with the truth. (Beauty in Photography). Robert Frank for a second time: The eye should learn to listen before it looks. 

I sincerely hope that I am not misunderstood. I am a Dutch speaking photographer, I do know how to express myself in English but that does not make me a native English speaking person. 


Please, let me know as soon as possible what I have to do to receive a copy. 



Kind regards, Albert De Donder I am a Belgian photographer and a book lover.