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A woman looks down the camera lens like it’s the barrel of a gun. Dark lips; bright blusher; a blue scarf around her neck shields her Adam’s apple, which is a memory of a life many like her never felt comfortable living. The photograph was taken by Paz Errázuriz in the underbelly of Chile in 1983, where trans sex workers are forced to flee from the streets and the Pinochet regime, surviving in the shadows of a city where being different can lead to your death.

35 years after that photo was taken, it’s hung on the wall of London’s Barbican as part of Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins, an exhibition that champions difference rather than ridiculing it, and celebrates the legendary photographers who’ve captured its foremost figures over the past half century.

Gathered from archives, galleries and personal collections, the most moving and provocative work of 20 photographers makes up the hundreds-strong showcase, chronicling everything from the street kids of Seattle to queer, crossdressing men in 1960s New Jersey who felt more free behind closed doors. Though their lives couldn’t be more different, the legacies of these outsiders have been immortalised on celluloid by photographers the world over. Now, they play as valuable a part in marking the pain of the past as they do the promise of the future.

Exhibitions like this risk veering into the realms of gross fetishisation: treating their subjects like circus acts, and putting them on pedestals for voyeuristic purposes rather than to inform whoever’s viewing it. But the exhibition’s title alone manages to reject that; these people live alternate lives – not bizarre ones, and many of the image-makers involved are photographing them because they feel like it’s their duty to do so.

Errázuriz was somebody who treated her work as a tool for positive political change. Her Adam’s Apple (1983) series respectfully captures the lives of Chile’s trans sex workers, the photos aching with the strength of the people they’re depicting. In one, a transgender woman is strewn across a bed in a dilapidated bedroom; in another, a woman is seen in a wig and a cable-knit sweatshirt, gently resting her hand on her elderly mother’s shoulder. The motivation of a photographer is a daunting thing to consider when the world has previously paid you no mind, but Errázuriz’s work captures a spirit of defiance. They’re evidence that these women lived through such fraught times, and exist to ensure we never forget it.

The art world has fawned over photographers who tread the fine line between artist and photojournalist like Errázuriz for decades, Larry Clark being another known for diving intimately into ostracised communities. He played a key role in making unsightly art part of the American cultural conversation when Kids, his cinematic portrait of New York’s disenfranchised, skateboarding, drug-taking youth, cracked the box office back in 1995.

The harsh reality of surviving as an addict couldn’t be more visceral and unattractive than in the photographer’s seminal photobook, Tulsa, excerpts of which also feature in Another Kind of Life. Shot across the 60s and 70s, Clark captured his friends as they drank, smoked and fucked their way through their early 20s – alongside Clark himself – creating poignant and raw portraits of 20th century American youth. “It was such a secret world and I was one of the guys,” Clark said of the time spent shooting the series in a 2002 interview. “I was an insider.”

Thanks to the laissez-faire attitude the protagonists in his films tend to adopt, Clark is often accused of glamourising drug and sex-fuelled subcultures, but what seems exploitative and dangerous on the surface could be construed as a scathing and explicit commentary on the state of America, both then and now. Today, the images from Tulsa etch themselves into the minds of those who see them. Remarkable, yet distressing, they have a socio-political purpose that still feels relevant – especially as we try and tackle the prescription pill addiction epidemic plaguing young people today.

Around the same time Clark was capturing the desolation of drug-infested middle America, Britain was buzzing with youth subcultures, fuelled by an obsession for American rock ’n’ roll, style and mindless violence. The Teddy Boys in particular made up a huge part of this. Famed for their romantic, Edwardian-style dress, their presence in the country’s bars and social clubs was marked by Chris Steele-Perkins while he was working as a photojournalist in his 20s.

“It just grabbed me by the throat and didn’t let go,” he tells me when I ask how he wound up taking photos of the men who ran with their own packs, causing violence and hysteria. “We spent a couple of years hanging out [and] documenting them. I liked the way it gave an identity and a sense of pride to kids who had very little in their lives, but made the most of it.” His portraits of the coiffure-haired, cigarette-smoking bandits, which are part of a wider collection titled The Teds, are captured relics of a rebellious uprising. These lads were a gang of young outcasts formed by their own building of barriers. In their eyes, it was us against them.

Some 30 or 40 years after they were first taken, these photographs act as historical hallmarks of a political mood we wish remained in the past: of addicts seeking help and not getting it; of young lads inciting violence in order to be heard, and of the trans community wishing they could survive without facing abuse and ostracism. You would have hoped we might have come much further in a time that’s seen photography and art progress so rapidly: digitising, with analogue swiftly becoming a romanticised and archaic way of capturing the world. But instead, Another Kind of Life serves as a sobering reminder, not only of the progress we’ve made, but of the painstaking work that still needs to be done.

Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins runs at Barbican, London, from 28 February-27 May