As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
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Mary Ellen Mark started taking pictures in 1963. Since then she has worked as a documentary photographer for most of the major news and features magazines in the United States and Europe, including: Life, Stern, Esquire, National Geographic, Time, and Vanity Fair. Her magazine assignments have provided a way to do her own, more personal work, which has often been an in-depth continuation of a magazine story. Two of her books—Falkland Road and Untitled 39: Photographs of Mother Teresa’s Missions of Charity in Calcutta—resulted from these expanded assignments.
Falkland Road is a study of prostitutes in India working with their customers. Ward 81 stemmed from a job doing film stills for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: It depicts women in a state mental hospital in Oregon. Another assignment, on homeless children in Seattle, led to the documentary film, Streetwise. Recently she has been working on projects in India and China, and raising money for her next film project.
Allan Frame Streetwise started as a photographic assignment, afterward, you went back to Seattle to do the film.
Mary Ellen Mark Streetwise started as an assignment from Life on Street Kids in Seattle. While I was there working, I called my husband, Martin Bell, a filmmaker, and said, “This would make an incredible film.” I say it about so many things that he doesn’t always believe me. He said, “Why? Why do you think it would be?” And I said, “Well, there’s this kid who roller skates down the hallway in an an abandoned building.” He said, “You’re right. It would make an amazing film.” So we came back and raised the money. Cheryl McCall, the writer on the piece for Life, was actually a great money raiser. She worked as a line producer on the film. I’m starting to believe that the most difficult and creative thing in filmmaking is raising money. It’s a special art onto itself.
AF Your husband directed Streetwise. How did you all work together?
MEM I knew all the kids, I knew all their relationships. I’d logistically try to plan out who might be where when. I worked as a link on the street for Martin and Cheryl.
AF Were you involved with the editing?
MEM No. I wasn’t involved with any of the editing or any of the actual shooting of the camera. I was just there. I knew the kids really well, I was a support person in that sense. But the film is really his film. I’m not at all a filmmaker. I wouldn’t know how to begin to make a film. It’s a different process from stills.
AF When you had ideas of which characters to work with on a given day, was that a visually oriented thought?
MEM For example, there was a certain day that we found out DeWayne was going to visit his father in the hospital. So that just meant being able to say. “Yes, that’s something that has to be filmed.” It meant getting access to the hospital. Getting access to things is something I’ve learned to be good at over the years. It’s part of my work.
AF You mentioned the boy on rollerskates in the abandoned building. I remember the shot which starts in an empty room; suddenly you see this unexpected figure go whizzing past the doorway.
MEM I don’t like to think of myself as a photojournalist. I’m a documentary photographer. I photograph reality. And I think Streetwise is a film about real people. Reality is so bizarre, you could never think of those ideas. Fiction writers are great in the sense that they can imagine. I could never “imagine” things. What I’m really great at is looking—that’s my forte—to be able to pull things from reality, to see what’s strange and real.
AF As a realist, then, how is it that you prefer to work in black and white?
MEM I did a cover for the New York Times Magazine—it was shot about three months ago—a kid in shackles. Originally, they promised me that assignment in black and white and at the last minute they said, “You have to do the cover in color.” It was a compromise. I did get to do the photograph in black and white also, which was used inside. I like color if it heightens reality. I don’t like color if it’s an abstraction of reality. When I photographed the prostitutes in Bombay, I had to work in color initially because that book was a magazine assignment from Geo and Stern, and they insisted it be in color. I’m glad I was given that challenge. I tried to see color as a real part of the story, and it was. But for me the basics come out more clearly in black and white.
AF I was fascinated to read that after you did your magazine assignment on Mother Theresa, you went back to do further work at the Home for the Dying in Calcutta.
MEM It was harder…
AF You were asked to work there for awhile before photographing again?
MEM I was asked to spend some time there. Actually, I didn’t spend a ton of time because I was there to take pictures. When I go to do something, I’m very obsessed with what I have to do. This incredible woman, Sister Luke, who has been in charge of the Home for the Dying for the past—well forever, not forever, but for at least 30 years now—was trying to teach me a lesson. There I was, you know, taking all these pictures, and she thought I should really feel what it was like to be right down there working. I was just in Calcutta and I went back to see her—I hadn’t seen her in ten years—I thought, “God, is she going to remember me?” She remembered me. It was like I’d never left. She’s amazing.
AF Had you ever done anything like that before—in order to photograph?
MEM I didn’t work there a long time. I don’t want it to seem like I’m this great, self-sacrificing person. I had that experience, maybe selfishly, because it was part of taking the pictures. It taught me something. It was incredible picking up people that weigh nothing.
Often when you go into a situation like that—like in Ethiopia, when you see that there people who are just ravaged—the more time you spend, the more they become real people. You get to know them, their humor, their personalities—they become human—not these terrifying things you’re looking at. Some people are nice, some are not nice, some are funny, some are not—even in the worst of circumstances, a strong personality emerges. So you get to know them, and it means something to you that’s important. The bad part of that is that sometimes you become too involved. You’re there to take pictures. You’re there and then you go. You must be very careful not to disrupt someone’s life. Sometimes leaving a place is very difficult. It’s important not to cry because, I’ve cried when I’ve left some places and I think that’s very unfair to the people I’m working with—it imposes some sort of sadness on them. It makes them feel maybe you’re crying because they are not going to live or because they’re in a lesser situation. You have to be able to be strong and not to cause any emotional stress with the people you’re working with. It’s hard letting go of a project.
Last year I did this story for Life where I spent a couple of weeks with a homeless family who lived in a car in California—myself, an assistant and a wonderful writer named Anne Fadiman. We got very attached to the kids, a little boy four years old, and a little girl who was about six. And when we left, the little boy started to cry. He was so upset. It was very difficult. I think all of us felt maybe, in a way, guilty, because our leaving was making him cry. I said, “Now don’t cry. You’re a big boy.” And he said, “I’m nothing.” That’s amazing, a four-year-old saying that. He said,“I was something when you guys were here, now I’m nothing.” You take a lot from people. People all say, “What do you give back?” “Do you pay people?” Well, I don’t believe in paying people, first of all, I don’t think you can. What we did after that story was, we took the family out and got them groceries, stuff that they would need and that was payment for us but no amount of money can ever pay for what people give you in a photograph.
AF Do you know what their reaction was to the photograph?
MEM They reacted very positively to the story. They got a lot of money sent to them by people just after it came out. But I think their lives went pretty much back to the way they were.
AF Do you think editors choose certain subjects for you because you’re a woman?
MEM People stereotype you as a photographer, but as a woman photographer you don’t necessarily relate better to a woman. It depends very much on the individual. One particular head of state—a woman—relates much better to men. I can tell immediately when I’m trying to do someone’s portrait, whether it was a mistake for them to have sent a woman. I think women can be very relaxed by the presence of a woman—or very threatened by them.
AF What are some of the valuable things you’ve learned along the way?
MEM Not to be ashamed of the fact that, particularly in documentary work, you have to really dig down in there, be part of it and take pictures. You cannot hold back and be shy. You have to feel a situation; not hurt someone, not aggress someone to the point that it’s obnoxious, but accept the fact that you are a voyeur—you’re stealing something from people. You have to be able to live with it. You have to accept the aggressiveness of it. And to try constantly to be better, to constantly try to learn.
Five years ago, I changed formats. I work a lot in 35mm but I also started working in 2¼ which demands more technique and formality. The limitations of 2¼ taught me how free I could be with 35mm. Technique is important, but the most important thing is content.
AF When you go to photograph a situation, what are your ways of getting into it?
MEM I start immediately. I don’t sit around and make friends and then take out my camera. I’m clear from the beginning about why I’m there, and people can accept that or not. You instantly have to start to work, to let them know that you’re there to take pictures.
Sometimes things can be outrageous to you but not to the people involved. I think you have to be able to cut through that. For example, some of the things Martin filmed of the families in Streetwise, made me think, “My God, they will kill us when they see this film.” They saw the film and accepted it. That was the way they lived. It wasn’t shocking to them. It was shocking to us. We had imposed something of our own standards on them.
Another thing that is very difficult, especially with teenagers, and I love photographing teenagers, is that sometimes they are doing things you don’t approve of. You are not there as a policeman. You can give them advice, say, “You’re really being stupid.” It’s a very delicate line you have to walk in that situation. You can’t change someone’s life that easily.
AF Are you still in touch now with the kids from Streetwise?
MEM Especially Tiny, the one who talks about pregnancy in the film. She calls me up. She has two kids now. Her life is tough. What I try to do is send her money every time a picture of her is published. I have to be very careful, because she often uses that money for stuff I don’t want her to use it for. So I never send her a great deal of money, but little bits at a time. Some religious magazine used her picture and she called them. She’d forgotten I’d sent her the money. She said, “Mary Ellen always said she would send me the money, especially when it’s a religious magazine.” (laughter) That deserves more money. She’s great, an amazing kid. It’s so sad that that kind of energy couldn’t be directed towards something.
AF Did her relationship with that boy continue?
MEM No. I haven’t seen that boy. He’s been in and out of jail. I wish I could say the lives of those kids are great, but they’re not. Three kids have died. Dewayne died. Lulu died—the young lesbian—she was stabbed on the street. Roberta with the big wide eyes died of AIDS. She was a drug addict.
AF There were so many intimate moments in the film, it’s hard to believe there’s a camera.
MEM Those are the moments in still photography too, that are incredible. Where you feel yourself involved in this amazing intimacy. In a movie you feel it even more. When Martin was filming that sequence at home in the trailer with Tiny and her mother, and she says. “Don’t bother me. I’m drinking.” That was our first big breakthrough.
AF You are arranging a retrospective. What have been the changes in your style over the years? Or has chronology been important? Does the particular situation have more to do with determining your style?
MEM The work becomes stronger and better. Early on there was some strong stuff, with anyone’s work you can find obsession. And those obsessions are repeated and repeated. The first really strong picture I took was in 1966 a picture of a girl who is 12 and looks like a woman. That’s one of my obsessions—that age. I’ve always felt that children and teenagers are not “children,” they’re small people. I look at them as little people and I either like them or I don’t like them. I also have an obsession with mental illness. And strange people who are outside the borders of society.
I’d rather pull up things from another culture that are universal, that we can all relate to. That’s why prostitution interests me. They weren’t just photographs of prostitutes in India. There are prostitutes all over the world. I try to show their way of life, and that shows India. It’s more difficult to do that subject here because of the drug problem. Now there’s a drug problem there, too. But then, in India, I felt that I could experience a pure example of what it was like as a woman to sell your body. That’s basically what the pictures were. They’re not meant to be pornographic.
And finally, I like a picture to stand out individually, to work on its own. I’m not a picture essayist because I always think more of the individual picture rather than what is needed to tell a story. It’s hard. If you get a couple of good pictures a year, you’re doing very well. It’s hard to get a great picture. Really hard. The more you work at it, the more you realize how hard it is.
Allen Frame is a writer and photographer living in New York.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.