Another Kind of Life

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hyena.jpg

One of Pieter Hugo’s images of hyena handlers

Another Kind of Life is a large and ambitious exhibition. There are works by 20 photographers, covering a period from the 1960s to the present.

The people depicted cover a huge range of very different experiences, from the desperate homeless to neo-Nazis in the American wilderness, and many trans people across different societies surviving in the teeth of oppression.

The show’s proclaimed aim, to shine a light on those living on the margins of society, is underlain by an unproclaimed one: a poststructuralist interpretation of history — French social theorist Foucault’s worldview in physical form.

To its great credit the show is an exception to a general tendency in the art world, in that it is well laid out and explains itself in plain English.

But the show does exemplify another trend in the art world — the expanded role of the curator. As the role of the artist has shrunk from isolated genius in their garret to another student at university looking to sell their wares in the commercial market, so the role of critic of society has moved towards the curator.

This show is almost entirely the product of what the curators want it to be, from the choice of photographers, to the handful of pictures chosen to represent that photographer, to the way in which the photos are displayed.

The exhibition shows people living on the margins of society and rejecting mainstream values. It does this through artists who broke from the then dominant view that photographers were objective observers — all the photographers on show were involved on some level with their subjects.

But the layout of the show has its own meaning and world view, beyond that of the individual photographers.

The photographers are displayed in isolated boxes, arranged historically starting with Diane Arbus in the 1960s.

On one level this can be seen as a reflection on the word “camera”, which originally meant chamber or room, so each photographer and each time and place has its own discrete chamber. But it also reflects Foucault’s view of society and his theory of resistance that still dominates in academia, even though the peak of postmodernism is now long passed.

According to Foucault resistance can only occur in the margins of society, among the transgressors of the dominant norm. And here we have 20 dissidents to the norm with nothing in common in time or place with each other. The narrative presented here is of isolated groups living entirely separate lives, united only in their revolt against the norm.

In fact the unspoken of and unimagined link, the unity that dare not speak its name, is class. Here, as in most modern critical theory, class is downgraded to one of many oppressions and defined culturally. In this exhibition you are what you wear.

All the photographers are ones who were personally involved with their subjects and involve the viewer with the people and worlds they show. In this they raise disturbing questions as to the nature of viewing, voyeurism, subjectivity and how we all perform to fit in with or rebel against norms.

To varying degrees, depending on the photographer, we get outsiders’ views of themselves and we the viewer become more than just a spectator looking on, as if at a freak show. Most of the pictures express empathy for the people depicted and invite us to see the world through their eyes.

This makes it a humanist and progressive show.

Arbus began by taking snapshots in the street unbeknown to the subject, but after 1962 she moved to working with the people she photographed, often workers in freak shows and other outsiders. These post-1962 images are what we get here, showing people as they wished to be seen. Arbus’s pictures exhibit humanity and warmth towards the subject. They unfreak the freak show.

Another set of photographs, the Casa Susanna, were taken by the clientele of a private resort for male to female cross-dressers in New York in the 1950s and 60s. The 400 anonymous photographs were discovered at a flea market. They show the self-photographers living out the fantasy of an alternative identity.

Pieter Hugo’s series on hyena handlers in Nigeria fits less with the brief, but the images are strikingly staged. Glamorous, muscular men in bold costumes pose in dynamic landscapes in the company of muzzled hyenas held on heavy chains. The excitement of the images stands apart from the complex ambiguities of the men’s outlawed social status, considered to be both entertainers and criminals.

The transgender prostitutes photographed at an underground brothel by Paz Errázuriz in 1980s Chile under Pinochet’s dictatorship are not passive subjects; they perform for her. Impeccably coiffed and made up, lounging and pouting, they offer themselves as they wish to be seen. Their resistance in defiance of oppression expresses both pride and impressive confidence in themselves as themselves.

Dayanita Singh’s 30-year friendship with Mona Ahmed, a eunuch living in New Delhi, is represented here with a fixed camera film of the elderly Ahmed listening to her favourite song and the collaborative photobook Myself Mona Ahmed. Singh first met Ahmed on assignment for The Times in 1989, but rather than publish the commissioned report on New Delhi’s eunuch community, she handed her negatives to Ahmed. The result is a moving and sensitive body of work.

More disturbing are the beautiful pictures taken by Alec Soth for his series Broken Manual, which explores the lives of American men who have removed themselves from society, becoming hermits living in solitude in the wilderness.

A large-format colour photograph shows a lean man standing naked in a stony stream in an Eden-like setting. Shaven-headed, tanned to the waist and milky white below it, his expression is quizzical. Only in approaching the photograph do you make out the swastika tattoo on his upper arm.

Boris Mikhailov’s photographs of homeless and desperately poor women and men in Kharkov, Ukraine, are disturbing for different reasons. The series shown here presents a “wedding”, with the bride and groom stripped down to their boots and underpants.

Mikhailov pays the subject for photographs, so it could be argued they play an active role in the way they are presented. But the conclusion I came to was that they are paid to perform for the camera, as in a freak show, drawing the viewer into this money contract. The images raise the question of art as voyeurism, the camera as an agent of power over people and commerce a corrupting process.

Also included in the show is Larry Clark, a controversial figure who is as famous for his films as for his photographs. On show are early 1970s photographs of the drug-, sex- and alcohol-dominated world of young teenagers, some as young as 12, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Clark shows them main-lining drugs, posing in underwear and playing with guns. He has been criticised for making images which are essentially pornographic and paedophilic, as well as for taking part and possibly paying for or enabling drug taking and underage sex.

I find these pictures disturbing because the viewer is made to feel that they are not empathising with the subjects but lusting after them. The camera as penis, an old feminist critique of art in general and photography and film in particular, here seems to fit.

Another Kind of Life raises many questions about the nature of photography as well as providing empathetic pictures of the oppressed surviving in a hostile world.