The exhibition is a small atmospheric thing. It hangs on walls surrounding a miss-matched collection of comfortable armchairs and sofas; the kind of space perfect for coffee and contemplation(conversation?). The bright images are encased in think black boarders, they have an almost retro feel, a product of the disposable cameras Jessica Barlow used to take them. In fact she used fourteen disposable cameras (we’re told in the accompanying text) to document her journey to Ghana, West Africa, selectively chosen to reflect the hope she says she found in the everyday lives of the people she met. The selectiveness shows; the photographs play well with each other, fostering an image of the simple happiness Barlow suggests we lack.
Set out in a grid, on opposite walls, what the images show is mundane, everyday. We see the cars our families used to own, the clothes we used to wear hanging on washing lines and we see the toys we used to play with set against a backdrop of red, red dirt. To Barlow it seems these photographs are an opportunity to relieve some form of modern day guilt, and it’s commendable that she offers 5% of the sales to the charity Malarianomore UK. But the thing is we’ve all seen them before. The pictures echo imagery we see so often on TV or in advertisements, they easily recall the aesthetic that comic relief presents and that of numerous charitable organisations. In fact they could be charity commissioned photographs. There just doesn’t seem to be anything new in the exhibition.
However, that in itself is not such a bad thing. There is something quite endearing about the ‘look at my holiday snaps’ attitude, some kind of pretty feeling in Barlow’s solace-seeking. But it’s just pretty. There’s a sense of rooting for Barlow as she’s exploring the world but at the same time the pictures never step outside the boundaries of a privileged viewpoint. We’re always the rich westerners looking in on the poor villages of Ghana and simultaneously marveling at how happy they are without what we have and feeling guilty because we have what we do have. They don’t push boundaries and it’s something we’ve seen before, but they are endearing.