Life & Culture

Documenting the World’s Most Fascinating Outsiders

We speak with the curator of the Barbican’s powerful new exhibition Another Kind of Life, investigating image-maker’s continuing preoccupation with those living on society’s margins

Today marks the opening of the Barbican’s new photography exhibition, Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins, a timely exploration of image-makers’ ongoing fascination with those existing at odds with, or on the peripheries of, mainstream society – spanning themes of gender, sexuality, countercultures and minorities of all kinds. Beginning with the hyper-subjective work of Diane Arbus and Bruce Davidson and leading up to the present day, the exhibition includes the work of 20 celebrated international artists, from Mary Ellen Mark and Daido Moriyama to Paz Errázuriz and Walter Pfeiffer, all of whom offer deeply invested and authentic insight into the lives of the underrepresented. These images also feature in a new book of the same title, Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins, which is published by Prestel and previewed in the gallery below. Alongside these images, curator Alona Pardo discusses the motives and selection process behind the powerful show.

“I’ve been looking at Diane Arbus’ work for a long time. Her relationships with her subjects, and to the notion of the outsider with which she’d been charged, is so always so visceral and engaged and I began to wonder, what was the legacy of her work? There’s a long history of photographing communities and individuals living on society’s fringes, but I noticed that in the pre-Second World War period, the work was made by mainstream artists working on assignment. Only in the fractured, post-war society did photographers begin seeking out the outsiders in their own community, immersing themselves in their worlds, and seemingly attempting to also find their own place within them. It felt like a moment of coming together to reflect a more heterogeneous and authentic view of human existence.

“Curating the show, the overriding principle was that the artist had had a sustained engagement with their subjects; Bruce Davidson said ‘I don’t do detached observation’ and none of these photographers do. Take Jim Goldberg, who spent six years, from 1987, photographing a collective of street kids in Los Angeles and San Francisco, or Dayanita Singh’s profound, 30-year relationship with Mona Ahmed, an Indian eunuch. These artists spent time crossing the threshold from outsider to insider to make the work, or else were making it from the position of an embedded insider. Danny Lyon spent five years with the Chicago outlaw motorcycle club, for instance, and between ‘62 and ‘68, Larry Clark photographed his high school buddies as they spiralled into a vortex of sex, drugs and violence.

“Interestingly, many of the subjects of these works stand defiantly to the camera and perform their identities, in a way that often feels affirming and empowered. There’s a very strong sense of collaboration and dialogue at play, a demonstration of how important the act of photography is, from both sides of the lens, in offering a nuanced and complex view of marginalised worlds.”

Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins runs from February 28 until May 27 2018, at the Barbican Art Gallery, London. Order a copy of Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins here.