After its blockbuster show ‘Basquiat: Boom for Real’, the Barbican continues to go from strength to strength with its current exhibition ‘Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins’ which chronicles the lives of those ‘on the fringes of society’ from the 1950s onwards. The range of outsider narratives which the exhibition offers is perhaps one of the most compelling reasons to go see it. The images on display depict lives lived on the margin, by choice and by discrimination – the victims and the rebels, the disenfranchised and the disillusioned – and in some cases, those who are both.
A large focus on the exhibition is on transgender and gender non-conforming individuals (the lead promotional image being Paz Errazuriz’s portrait of Evelyn, a transgender sex-worker) which is a much-appreciated effort towards representation and inclusion; whilst the contribution made by trans-individuals to queer rights and activism is phenomenal, they remain some of the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ community. The variety of photographs from different parts of the world and different points in time – from Errazuriz in Chile and Seiji Kurata in Japan in the 70s, to Teresa Margolles’ work in Mexico now – serves as a good reminder that there are various accounts of queer history, and ‘Another Kind of Life’ provides us with the opportunity to see some of them. The Casa Susanna Collection in particular is one of the more interesting moments of the exhibition. Not taken by any one photographer, these images are joyful portraits of the transgender and cross-dressing folk which Casa Susana was a safe-haven retreat for. Whilst the photographs were intended to be a personal affirmation of an otherwise hidden part of the individual’s existence, they now serve as being important visual affirmations of the queer community’s existence – one that has historically been suppressed or erased.
As part of the Barbican’s ‘The Art of Change’ season which investigates how the artist reflects and responds to political and social landscapes, a lot of emphasis is put on the interaction between the photographer and the subjects. The majority of the 20 photographers in the show spent significant time with those photographed and it’s clear from the onset that the photographs on display are not single, shocking, ‘blink-and-you-miss-it’ moments but rather a representation of a life and lifestyle. The exhibition questions the photographer’s position as a vessel for representation, as a voyeur and an exploiter of situation, prompting discussion about who benefits from these images being seen.
We also gain insight into how an ‘insider’ perspective is achieved by the different photographers: Larry Clark is “unapologetically autobiographical”, Tulsa being documentation of his friends and own lived experience to the homeless youth which Jim Goldberg befriended play an almost collaborative role in Raised by Wolves with their handwritten notes and confessions.
Another Kind of Life proves to be an interesting study into the relationship between photographer and the photographed, as well as a much-needed reflection on non-mainstream communities in society.
Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins is open until May 27 2018
Words: Moorisha Moodley
Image: Mary Ellen Mark ‘Tiny’. Seattle, Washington. From the series Streetwise, 1983 ©Mary Ellen Mark/ Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery New York