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