Photos by Martin Parr
Martin’s first post-bin Laden piece of memorabilia. It was for sale days after it was announced Osama was dead. What better way to relax after all those years of hunting down and killing the world’s most wanted man than having a nice cuppa?
It’s a well-known fact that VICE favorite Martin Parr is one of Britain’s finest photographers. But few people are aware that he is also an avid collector of tacky memorabilia inspired by terrorists, dictators, and other nefarious characters. I also collect this kind of stuff, and learning of our mutual hobby made me feel less deviant for owning dozens of objects that depict monsters who specialize in mass murder.
Martin told me that last month, when it was announced that Navy SEALs had shot Osama bin Laden in the face and chucked his body into the ocean like a bearded bag of garbage, his reaction was the same as mine: We were instantly excited for all of the death-themed bin Laden merchandise that would soon appear on eBay. Listings for the new ephemera appeared within days—yet another testament to the incredible work ethic fostered by Chinese and Indian sweatshops. Of course, we both placed large orders.
After becoming aware of our mutual pastime, it seemed like God (or Allah, if you prefer) was almost forcing me to ask Martin to photograph some of his most prized pieces and find out why they mean so much to him.
VICE: When did you begin collecting all this, um…
Martin Parr: Political ephemera?
I started with Margaret Thatcher stuff, and as time went on it accelerated. When the internet and eBay and everything really got going, it became a lot easier to find stuff.
My dad had a life-size cardboard cutout of Margaret Thatcher, which he used to keep in his “office” at home, aka the garden shed. Then there were the Spitting Image toys.
I’ve got all of those things, the squeaky dolls—eBay is full of them. And now that bin Laden is dead, there’s a whole new batch of stuff coming out, which I’m accumulating. I’ve got things from India and Hong Kong that celebrate his passing.
Apart from the fact that it’s fun to fill your apartment with things that make guests uneasy, why are you so interested in this stuff?
I think that there’s always this shadow of human folly looming over world politics, and many of these objects reflect that.
What are the favorite pieces?
The kulfa balls, which were made in Pakistan in bin Laden’s honor. It’s so ephemeral and bizarre.
Are they tasty?
Oh I don’t know, they have to remain as a sealed package. I hope they’re well preserved because they won’t ever get eaten.
I bet they taste like something that dripped out of a dialysis machine.
It’s quite remarkable that somebody manufactured them, and in such great quantities. He was a real hero in certain parts of Pakistan.
Do you think the US is lying about his death? Conspiracy theories are for nut jobs, but I feel like there’s something fishy going on.
I’m pretty convinced because his family and Al Qaeda have confirmed it. Actually, when it was announced I was on eBay and managed to buy a watch that contained the photo circulated right after his death—the one where his face is all shot up.
Yeah, that photo looked like a junior high student made it with Microsoft Paint, but it was still amazing. Some would argue that it’s a work of art.
The watch was made in India very soon after that photo was released. A day later it had been removed from the site and I haven’t seen it for sale since, but I’ve got one coming to me soon.
What’s the most you’ve ever spent on one of these items?
I once paid $500 for three Gaddafi watches because, as far as I could tell, they were the only ones for sale on the internet. It seems like a high price because they are pretty cheaply made, but it’s not like you can pop down to Tesco and pick up one up, is it?
It’s also an investment of sorts, because the demand for these trinkets is growing by the day.
The bin Laden market on eBay has expanded immensely since he died. Before, it was something like a couple hundred items, but now it’s in the tens of thousands. There have been times when it’s been even more intense. When Saddam died, that was a very good time to buy. The pro-bin Laden stuff, such as the kulfa balls, is getting trickier to find in the West.
A friend once gave me a Hezbollah paperweight he brought back from Pakistan. I cherish it.
The bin Laden things are taking up all my attention at the moment—that and the Gaddafi watches. I don’t know how you would go about getting one of those without going to Libya, which is quite hard to do at the moment.
Is the difficulty of obtaining these objects one of the reasons you’re so enamored with them?
It’s an intuitive thing, and that’s why I do it. All of these failed dictators with massive egos allowed these goods to be produced. It speaks volumes about their personalities.