Join The People Living On The Fringes Of Society In This Photography Exhibition

Another Kind of Life, Barbican Art Gallery ★★★☆☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 8 months ago

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Join The People Living On The Fringes Of Society In This Photography Exhibition Another Kind of Life, Barbican Art Gallery 3
Paz Erraruriz documents the difficult lives of male to female cross dressers under the brutal Pinochet regime. Copyright the artist.

Carnival performers, biker gangs and Teddy boys. These are communities that have all been — or felt — marginalised by mainstream society.

Barbican Art Gallery showcases the work of 20 photographers who have spent time with these communities catching them as they go about their lives. It's 20 deeply personal photographic journeys crammed into one show — credit is due to Barbican for using walls to isolate each section so it's like we're stepping into each story with a fresh set of eyes.

The idea of Soviet hippies was a new one to us. Copyright Igor Palmin.

We find ourselves struggling to tear our eyes away from the heavily tattooed carnival performer who fixes us with a pale eyed stare, it's a beautifully composed and lit photograph by Diane Arbus.

Boris Mikhailov takes us into the world of poverty showing couples who smile despite their clothes being filthy, and Bruce Davidson shows the life of a circus dwarf whose sadness powers through his make-up.

Transgender sex workers ply their trade in Ciudad Juarez, one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Copyright Teresa Margolles  and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich, Switzerland.

Sex workers, drug addicts and gangsters all feature, and each series is a look behind the scenes into a particular community or sub-culture. Whether it be smoking in bathrooms or just hanging out and killing time.

This is where the exhibitions starts to come a cropper, it makes the wonderfully diverse communities look to similar. Smoking, check. Isolated shots in back rooms, check. Hanging out in cars, check.

A street child nicknamed Tiny is full of confidence here, but vulnerable in an adjacent photo. Copyright Mary Ellen Mark. Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery New York

Whether it's street gangs in Paris or cross dressers under Pinochet's brutal rule in Chile, each culture looks homogenous with close candid portraits. Of course there will be similarities, they are all human after all, and this may not have been an issue in a small show — but in one this vast it feels repetitive.

That's not to say there aren't some spectacular images here. Dayanita's Singh's video close up of an elderly eunuch's face mouthing along to a song is beautifully tender. We were struck by the contrast in Mary Ellen Mark's photographs of a street child named tiny — in one she exudes self-confidence dressed as a grown up woman, but in another she clutches firmly to a stuffed toy and her vulnerability is heart-wrenching.

Daido Moriyama goes behind the scenes with sex workers in Japan. © Ian Gavan/ Getty Images

This exhibition introduces us to communities we never knew existed such as Soviet hippies, Hyena handling entertainers in South Africa and transgender sex workers in the violent city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Each community's story is compelling but the photography is not always able to measure up, which is a shame as the diversity of sub-cultures on display here is eye-opening.

Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins at Barbican Art Gallery is on until 27 May. Tickets are £13.50 for adults.

Last Updated 28 February 2018