there," she says, "in a strange way, it's where I belong." On her second day in India she took some photographs in a small travelling circus: 'There was a huge trained hippopotamus, whose entire act was walking around in a tutu and eating cotton candy." But only after twenty years and several other photography projects in India did this first encounter mature into a major project. Eventually, in 1989, Mary Ellen travelled around India for six months, spotting, following and photographing 18 itinerant circuses.
When I saw these photographs as part of a retrospective exhibition in Paris, I felt that they were particularly suitable to represent MEM'S work in PHOTOGRAPHERS INTERNATIONAL. We had an exchange of fax messages and telephone conversations:
Frank Horvat (from Paris, by fax) : In your exhibition, the Indian Circus stands out very strongly. Not that the rest of your work is less powerful, or that the Circus series is fundamentally different;
but this body of work appears to me as a fulfillment ‑ so that from here I can go back to the previous work and understand it better. Someone said that every work of art, that is really new and original, throws a new light on all works created before. Do you agree? Should one look at this project as a milestone in your itinerary?
Mary Ellen Mark (from New York, by telephone): Every project on which one spends time and thought is a milestone. It's true that the Indian Circus is something that I had wanted to do for a very long time.
H: What makes me think of it as a milestone — or as a turning point — is that it's completely beyond "concerned photography".
M: Do you mean that it's not political? I have been moving away from the photo essay as a form of magazine photography, like what LIFE used to publish in the Fifties and Sixties. I never try to build a sequence of images in order to prove a point, or to get what magazine editors would call a "traditional photo‑story". Instead, I try to make a series of images that can each stand alone, without explanation.
H: Because you feel that photo‑journalism, in the LIFE style of the
Fifties and Sixties, has become inadequate to describe the reality
we live in?
M: I believe that the conventional picture story, with a beginning, a middle and an end, has been over used and that many people have become immune to its effect. Also, unfortunately, there is much less space now in magazines given to serious imagery. So one strong image is often all there is room for. But I continue to believe that a strong individual photograph can convey all the surprise, the fantasy, the irony, the sensuality, the tenderness or the sadness that we feel when confronted with real life. This is what I like in the great photographs of Eugene Smith, Cartier‑Bresson or Robert Frank. A good photograph is like a metaphor, meaning more than it shows, reminding the spectator of experiences in his own life or in his own imagination.
H: This is exactly what I feel about the Indian Circus photographs.
To me they are very sexy.
M: Sexy? I would prefer to say sensual. But talking about them now makes me feel sad. Because it's all past. It was such beautiful experience. I would like it to begin all over again.