Martin Parr: Objects of their affection

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Photographer Martin Parr asked key cultural figures to pose with the one item they'd save in a flood. It's a project that has a serious point, says Charlotte Cripps

What would you save if it could only be one item from your home? The Magnum photographer Martin Parr has taken portraits of leading figures in the arts holding one item they would save if their houses were flooded, to bring attention to the unpredictability of climate change.

Grayson Perry is photographed hanging on to his teddy bear, fondly known to the artist as Alan Measles. "If I was in a flood Alan would boss me about, make sure I was alright and that I wasn't a selfish twit," says Perry, who as a child projected all his "positive male qualities" onto the teddy, which he claims is "a living god".

Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis proudly holds Stevie Wonder's harmonica, which was given to him at Glastonbury's 40th birthday last year. "Stevie asked me to join him on stage for the last song of his set," says Eavis. "He sang 'Happy Birthday' and gave me the harmonica as a birthday present." Philip Pullman chose to save a woodcut by Edward Gordon Craig of a scene from King Lear. "Because no matter how familiar to me it's become," he says, "it always surprises my eye when I look at it."

The artist Maggi Hambling is pictured with her dog Lucky: "My first choice would have been the Rembrandt from the National Gallery, but as I am not allowed to take that, my only other choice to save would be Lucky. I take her with me everywhere; she is very well behaved and in a flood she would be a good companion to have."

These 15 portraits will go on show in an exhibition called What Would You Save in a Flood? at London's Strand Gallery next week. Parr has teamed up with Oxfam to take these portraits to highlight climate change.

"In terms of my own collecting of objects, I am an obsessive person so I collect anything from political books to photography books, and prints by other people," says Parr. "But I fully realise that as and when the floods come this is not what I'm going to take. I'd probably have to take something like a camera, because a camera is my window to the world. It's through that that I can articulate and express who I am."

The British photographer Parr, 58, has been documenting cultural peculiarities in society all over the world since the late 1970s. Most famous for his books The Last Resort in 1986, which captured British holidaymakers in Brighton, Bad Weather in 1982, in which he documented England's dreary climate with an underwater camera, and Bored Couples in 1993, which showed an array of glum people, Parr's approach to social documentary is often humorous. "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." His latest book, Luxury (2009), documents extreme wealth and its vulgarity in today's economic climate.

This latest series of shots follow on from a trip Parr took with Oxfam in 2009 to Quang Tri Province in Vietnam. He photographed people who were struggling with unpredictable flooding and asked them to pose with a possession that they had managed to save when their homes were flooded. "The difference between the objects here and the objects in Vietnam, inevitably, is that they are probably more practical in Vietnam. The people there would have taken a bag of rice or a notebook. Here people tend to take something that is much more precious to them emotionally," says Parr. "When I visited Vietnam for Oxfam the thing that really struck me was how the local farmers had to prepare to evacuate or climb to their mezzanines with their valuable family possessions. I asked them to hold the item they selected first. We are now applying this idea to British celebrities as a way of highlighting the ever increasing dangers of flooding due to climate change."

Comedian Shazia Mirza has chosen her joke book containing her comedy material. "In it I've got some jokes about recycling that I've been working on. We all have guilt about not recycling," she says. The fashion designer Zandra Rhodes holds her sketch book: "I have chosen my sketch book because it really represents the whole of my life; I carry it everywhere with me..." Another subject was the illustrator Quentin Blake. "I chose a lithograph by Honoré Daumier from the 1860s," he says. "I have been collecting them in Paris and London on and off for years. I have always admired them and it is wonderful to be able to have the real thing in your home."

Actor Peter Capaldi chose to be photographed with a family photo taken at Butlins. "The photo is from a family holiday when I was a kid. I entered a father-and-son competition with my dad. Sadly we came third, but the Butlins photographer took this of us and I have held onto it because I have no negative for it – like old pictures, if it goes it's gone forever."

Parr, whose images of Vietnam will also go on show along with his latest celebrity portraits, adds:

"Since the economic crisis, climate change has come down on the agenda slightly, because when confronted with the day-to-day problems of survival and navigating your way through this recession, climate change is too much of a luxury to think about."

Martin Parr's shots from Vietnam and the UK will be displayed in What Would You Save in a Flood?, The Strand Gallery, London WC2 (020 7839 4942) 17 to 24 May. To find out more about Oxfam's work on climate change, visit www.oxfam.org.uk/climatechange

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