written by Gülnaz Can
“Every morning, even before I open my eyes, I know I am in my bedroom and my bed. But… sometimes I wake up with a feeling of childish amazement: why am I myself? What astonishes me… is the fact of finding myself here, and at this moment, deep in this life not in any other. What stroke of chance has brought this about?”
I think about these words by Simone de Beauvoir when I walk through the exhibition in the Barbican Art Gallery, “Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins”. People wake up every morning into their lives as de Beauvoir says, and some mornings, some of them dare to be childish enough to blend into other people’s colours and voices. These people live with them or make them comfortable enough to be in front of the camera and have their pictures taken. Do they do this to experience other people’s mornings and to feel like they are living in another life?
What a passage of other lives we walk though in the Barbican’s Art Gallery; These lives are from Tokyo, Paris, Hull, Chicago, New York, Ciudad Juarez… They are of nameless cross-dressers’ Christmas parties, staged weddings between homeless people in deprived towns of Russia, Tokyo’s sex workers and gangsters, Seattle’s street children, Soviet Russia’s flower children rising through brutal constructions, sitting on heavy machinery, the Teds in a pub on the Old Kent Road of South London… The people are from minorities of all kinds, of disenfranchised communities, LGBTQs, outlaws, romantic rebels, survivalists, the economically disadvantaged, those openly flouting social convention… They are the subjects of 300 images in the exhibition from 1950 to today.
The exhibition aims to reflect on the dialogue between art, society, politics, and the artists directly addressing difficult questions about what it means to exist on the margins. One interesting question the exhibition asks is about the proximity to subjects and being an insider or outsider as the photographer, and exploring their role in portraying those subcultures. For many artists, lives of others have been the life worth photographing, worth listening to, writing about, befriending, observing for decades. Diane Arbus, one of the featured photographers, once said: “Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot. It was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me. I just used to adore them. I still do adore some of them. I don’t mean they’re my best friends but they made me feel a mixture of shame and awe.”
Arbus almost always photographed complete strangers; we never know their names, although their pictures appear like intimate portraits. Daido Moriyama took pictures of people we only know by their labels as ‘gangsters’ or ‘couples in the park’. In his photography, people sometimes appear as the subjects of abstract extreme close up images. Larry Clark photographed his school friends. He was authenticated by this relationship, but some of the rest like Jim Goldberg needed to spend at least 30 years with their subjects. In his corner, you meet a self-claimed rock star Tweeky Dave and recent runaway Echo. Goldberg followed the couple and their lives with extreme highs and lows for 30 years and became friends with them. Still, his video of sitting in McDonalds with Tweeky Dave, having got him a burger, then placing the camera in front of him, asking questions like “Are you happy?” or “Are you missing Echo?” doesn’t feel very friendly for some reason.
The photographers, who tried to achieve authenticity, perhaps were trying to blur the line between this and another, between here and there, between now and then. The exhibition dares the audience to wake up into their lives then go to see some other people’s mornings, days, lives... As the title of the exhibition suggests, to see the “Photography on the Margins” through the lenses of many great photographers.
The exhibition can be seen at The Barbican until 27th May.