May 6, 2016

Unity Field Trip: Strange & Familiar

Unity is a creative agency made up of around 30 members of staff who use culture to shape how they see the world around them. We are set monthly Field Trip missions to ensure we stay informed and culturally current.

This month we went to the Barbican for the Strange & Familiar exhibition. Here’s what Grace Nuttall thought:

Strange & Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers

By Grace Nuttall

Curated by photographer and social commentator Martin Parr, Strange & Familiar is an intimate look at Britain through the lenses of 22 international photographers. Documenting different social, political and economic periods from the 1930s, it presents a vibrant and multi-faceted portrait of the nation.

The diversity of photographers and their subject matter means that each section of the exhibition offers a new and personal perspective. These artists have not just explored the geography of Britain, however – from coal miners to bankers, and amateur footballers to soldiers, different social groups are all documented.

These intimate images make ordinary sights and images alien, rendering the familiar strange (as the apt name suggests). By examining the artists’ different perspectives, we re-evaluate our own preconceptions, viewing them in a new light. In this way, empty communal spaces become symbols of alienation, clubbers’ clothing represents a community’s uniform and, above all, the commonplace is celebrated.

Shinro Ohtake is the best example of this, with his obsessive record of everything he encountered. Living in London in the 1970s, speaking no English, he made sense his surroundings by constantly assembling images and materials from his day. Documenting everything from gum wrappers to matchboxes, garage doors to awnings, his scrapbooks and photographs present a stream of consciousness. Viewing this record, audiences are left questioning why he took specific shots and their significance, seeing the familiar in a new way.


What can we learn from these methods? For a start, it is clear that by changing our personal viewpoint and embracing different lenses and outlooks, we can create content that stands out and engage with different audiences more successfully. By presenting the ordinary in a new light, brands can tap into existing customer love and refocus it.

This idea is reflected further by photographers in the exhibition with socialist backgrounds, who focused on ordinary people, including Henri Cartier-Bresson (below). For them, it was individuals who were important – not the events they were attending. At Unity, we exist to increase human happiness, and always keep people at the heart of our campaigns. Brands must always remember the people they are communicating with, and the different perspectives they might have.

The exhibition took us out of the present for a moment, making us think about the future and how later generations might view our work. With the meteoric rise of Instagram, Facebook, and other social media platforms, the way we produce content has changed considerably – blurring the lines between art-forms and genres. How will the images that we create now and the perspectives that we hold be classified? Brands that can look past the now and to the future, who can master what we call ‘cathedral thinking’, will have a lasting impression.


To find out more about the Strange & Familiar exhibition, head to the Barbican’s website

Unity’s Field Trip programme sees all staff (from interns to our co-founders) embarking on a challenging journey into the heart of London’s arts and culture scene. If you’re interested in knowing more, then please email