Another kind of life, another essential viewing

20 photographers on the margins of society 

I very much enjoyed Another Kind of Life at Barbican, a show of 20 photographers from the 50s to today representing “disenfranchised communities”. Even if I felt like a voyeur at times, uncomfortable seeing a world I wouldn’t want to be in except from the comfort of an art gallery.

Tiny. Seattle, Washington, Mary Ellen Mark

Photographers became insiders, immersing in their subjects’ world

It felt like the photographers shown in the exhibition had to be insiders to justify on one hand, their credibility to the public and on the other, acceptance within the circle of marginalised people they were photographing. The following words have been used to describe their experience: immersive, insider; humanist, befriend and identify, but also voyeurism, as well as political resistance.

Untitled 1973, Walter Pfeiffer

Are they mere observers who can’t come to the aid of their subjects? 

What is the inner motivation of those photographers on the margins? Could they be from privileged backgrounds and want to experience danger – at worse? Or are they resisting conformism and willing to be agents of political change, at best? In most cases in my view, they are helpless observers. Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography that Diane Arbus’s work concentrates on the unfortunate, but without being compassionate.

FSA members reflected their own notions of poverty, said Sontag 

Maybe the role of the photographers is showing these communities to the world as opposed to helping them. Sontag said even the photographers most concerned with mirroring reality are haunted by imperatives of taste. Members of the Farm Security Administration project (e.g. Lange, Evans – not shown at Barbican) took dozens of pictures of their subjects, shooting until they were satisfied they had captured a precise expression of their own notions about poverty (On Photography).

Maybe I am expecting too much from photography. Still, I strongly recommend Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins. Arbus, Moriyama, Lyon, Chancel, Singh, and 15 others saw beauty in the ordinary and the different. The exhibition runs at the Barbican Art Gallery until 27 May.

Untitled 1982, Philippe Chancel

2 responses to “Another kind of life, another essential viewing

  1. Thank you for bringing a different kind of eye through your review of this exhibition. Such works open the door to hours of discussion about the role, rights and duty of photographers. It reminds me of a talk I attended where Sebastiao Salgado talked about the rapport he establishes with the people he takes pictures of, his way of making an image so powerfully beautiful that people cannot NOT react to the themes he explore (nature in danger, extreme poverty, displacement etc…). Check him out, if you haven’t already 🙂

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