Words by Daniella Harrison
The life of the unconventional is irrevocably sexy. It’s somewhat cool and fashionable to be unconventional in today’s economy: private school students spend Daddy’s money on clothes which evoke ‘chav culture’, and TV shows such as American Horror Story glamorise and fetishize circus performers and Asylum patients via the horror genre. Living life ‘on the margins’ is deemed as something to be obtained.
The Barbican Centre’s exhibition ‘Another Kind of Life: Photography On the Margins’ plays upon these conventions in the presentation of over three hundred photographs taken by twenty photographers over fifty years. The exhibition spans an impressive twenty rooms over two floors, one of the largest art exhibitions I have ever been to. The subjects of the photos are individuals or groups of people who are seen to be on the margins of society, whether that be a self-imposed marginalisation or due to the strains of society. The subjects span from fashionable trends, such as the Teddy Boys, to groups of homeless children, transgender sex workers, and dwarves living in the circus. Some more harrowing content included videos of a group of young adults injecting heroin into their veins. The video is simultaneously horrifying and mesmerising to watch.
I don’t know what it is about this exhibition, but something doesn’t seem to sit right with me. The photos and documentation of these groups’ lives is stunning, but there’s something a little bit icky about it. Maybe it’s because the set-up of the exhibition and the continued use of black and white photography reminds me of the Instagram aesthetic we so seem to crave in our lives. Does this exhibition fetishize these groups, or am I reading too far into it?
Because, for the main part, this exhibition is giving a voice and a window of opportunity for these groups to be seen. Each photographer either lived with or spent an extensive amount of time with their ‘subjects’ (I shuddered at that word as I typed it) so their photos are not just snapshots of their lives, but carefully honed images which have been taken with care to represent these groups in their truest form.
It’s the rooms which use forms other than photography which get to me the most, and make the people in the photos seem real. There’s a room about homeless children in New York which includes a skateboard (with ‘The Twilight Zone’ emblazoned across it) and slips of paper and Burger King wrappers with the childrens’ handwriting on, writing about their parents and how they feel. There’s another room across the floor which has a video of an elderly eunuch, singing to their favourite song. They begin shy, but as they get more confident they begin smiling, and it is the intimacy of the camera which makes this video feel so human, as if you are lying next to them.
In short, the exhibition is fantastic, but there is something about the cold, aesthetic layout of the gallery which makes the exhibition somewhat lack in the feelings it could provoke.