TINY: I've known Mary Ellen for about fourteen years now. I like taking pictures with her. And she's nice, she's a different type of person-outgoing and free of the world.
MH: Do you like looking at the pictures of you and your friends that were first published in her book, Streetwise?
TINY: I don't know. I like them, but, that was my life, and I'm more interested ... I'm reading a book now called Green River that has pictures of girls, and I want to think about them, and how their lives are. I already know me.
MH: How are things for you? OK?
TINY: Oh, yeah.
MELISSA HARRIS: Children and teenagers comprise a large part of your work. What is it about them that you find so compelling?
MARY ELLEN MARK: In my pictures I like to get a sense of oddness or edginess. I think that children and teenagers are much more about that. They're growing, they're changing, especially teenagers. It's such a powerful time. There's so much rawness at that time of life, and it's really interesting to me to be able to catch that. Children and teenagers aren't so formed. Their bodies are developing, their voices are changing. They are going through so much physically during this period of time that they exhibit a real vulnerability yet, at the same time, defiance. Teenagers are very unpredictable. That fascinates me.
MH: How do you get them to trust you? Is that even an issue?
MEM: I feel with children and also with teenagers that you must never talk down to them. Even with little ones. It also helps to spend time with your subjects. I knew many of the children in this portfolio very well, but even if you're just in a location for a few moments and don't get the chance to know the people, you somehow have to take command and control-especially in a portrait situation.
MH: How do you do that without people feeling...
MEM: That you're bossy? You have to be a bit bossy. I don't think there's ever any formula for taking control, except that you must always be yourself. I'm not a particularly dominating person, but when I have a camera, I do take over. In order to get the image you must be assertive.
MH: Does a street child respond to you or the camera differently than a child from privileged circumstances?
MEM: Everyone is going to have a different reaction to a camera. But in some situations it is possible to get a similar reaction from a street child and a child from a very wealthy family. It all depends on the individual. Some people are very shy and not able to reveal themselves in front of the camera, and other people are just naturals. I find the shy people are often harder to photograph, because they won't allow you to see who they really are. They can be very stiff and uncomfortable. I'm shy, and therefore I can relate to that feeling-it's hard to be photographed. You have to be willing to give something of yourself.
MH: Are people who seem open in their personalities, generally open to a camera, or does one thing have nothing to do with the other?
MEM: One thing has nothing to do with the other; it really depends on the individual's ability to love the camera. Often when I'm working in documentary situations and photographing people, I find individuals who are amazing to photograph because they are able to just lay themselves wide open to you in front of a camera. You try and approach each situation with your own particular point of view and your own way of taking control. Sometimes you have to struggle to get that control. And you risk making a fool of yourself. But you won't get strong photographs unless you trust your instincts. When you go out to photograph, whether it's at the home of a very famous person or at the home of a totally unknown family living in poverty, they all want to feel that you know what you're doing. They don't want to doubt you, because they are trusting your photographic interpretation of them.
MH: Has photographing teenagers changed any of your views on certain issues, like sex education in schools, or the juvenile justice system, or Planned Parenthood, or welfare, for example? Do you find that outside of your aesthetic, any of your political views are informed by what you see?
MEM: Being a social-documentary photographer for so many years has educated me. It has made me realize how unfair the world is. I wish that all people had equal opportunities. I realize how difficult it is to break the cycle of poverty. Of course I would love to see somebody like Tiny have a better chance in life, and I would love to see her kids also have a chance. I wish that tragic pattern of poverty, crime, and drugs could be broken. I never feel that my pictures are about changing the world. They're just about people. I would hope that they are about people recognizing themselves in others. My photographs are more about emotions than politics.
MH: With somebody like Tiny-the protagonist of your 1988 project Streetwise-who you have been photographing continuously since 1983, do you feel the pictures provide some kind of reflective device for her? Do you think she looks at them?
MEM: She does look at them, because every time she loses them (which is often), she'll call me and ask for more pictures. The images of her past definitely mean a lot to her. I haven't actually seen her in a few years, and I miss her, because Tiny has a very distinctive personality. She is a real survivor, and life is still very tough for her. Her children are beautiful, and she loves them very much. I think they inspire her to be stronger.
MH: What makes you go back-to Tiny, and also to the Damm family, a story you began ten years ago with that disquieting image of them living in the car?
MEM: Well, it's really interesting going back. You can have greater access because people know you and feel comfortable with you. It's fascinating to have an overview of someone's life and to begin to understand more profoundly the changes they go through. I'd love to be able to photograph Tiny's children now and see how they've changed. She has four. One little girl named Kiyana wants to be a werewolf when she grows up. She has been saying that since she was two. I would also love to continue to photograph the Damm family. In a way, their situation was even more brutal than Tiny's. Eventually, I think, the children were taken away from the parents. I don't know what's happened to them. But I really would love to go back and photograph them again. Especially the children. I'm most interested in stories where, even though the situation is tough, I feel that there's some hope. When I photograph people like the neo-Nazis, it's difficult to go beyond the hatefulness of their outlook.
MH: With the neo-Nazis, it's obvious, but with your other subjects, do you always know their character?
MEM: You watch, you listen, and you form your own opinions. The Damm family was fascinating to photograph but most interesting because of the two older children, Chrissy and Jesse. They were just so moving and touching. They were surviving in spite of their difficult situation. It became a series of images about survival rather than a story about defeat. I'd like to think of myself as being a humanistic photographer. I prefer to photograph human beings who I feel have something that's heroic about them.
After all these years, I'm still interested in photography because I am constantly finding new ways to construct an image-to better understand that visual language. The single image with a metaphoric value appeals to me more than the traditional photo essay. I am always trying to discover which photographs work, why they work, what is necessary to include in a photograph, and what you can leave out. Often the strongest images are those that exclude elements and leave more to the imagination.
MH: Has your language changed a lot over the years?
MEM: I hope so. The more clearly you learn how to express what you want to say and how you want to say it, the better photographer you become. I just hope that I'm going to continue to grow as a photographer. I don't want my work to become formulaic in any way.
NM: How do you find the stories? Do they all come out of assignments?
MEM: Well, life is full of stories. The problem now is finding the means to be able to produce them. Documentary projects take time, and time is expensive. In the past, magazines were my way of financing personal work. It was wonderful. I was able to produce many interesting stories and make photographs that worked for the magazine, as well as adding to my own body of work. In fact, magazine assignments were almost like grants that sponsored my work, but those kinds of social documentary assignments are harder to come by now. Publications are much less interested in documentary reality. But I am a fighter, and I refuse to look at it negatively. I love making social-documentary pictures more than ever, and I definitely intend to find other ways of sponsoring my personal work.
Mary Ellen Mark, Chrissy Damm and Adam Johnson, Llano, California, 1994.
When I was photographing the Damm family, I would just spend all day. This is Chrissy with her boyfriend, Adam. This is in the house where they were squatting; they were no longer living in a car, but rather a shack without water or electricity. I just hung out with the kids. They were in love.
MH: What did they think of you? They've known you since they were babies, right?
MEM: I think Jesse likes us. With Chrissy, it's a little hard to tell. She is more complex. Everything is more hidden with her. She's suffered a lot more. I mean, Jesse has suffered a lot too, but somehow he's stronger; he's able to sort of deal with it. They've just been so badly treated. During this time in Tiny's life, she was in a bad drug period. I spent some time with her. Some days I would have to find her, and when I tracked her down on the street this time, she was totally high. We went back to her house and she fell asleep, which is when I took the picture. A few hours later, the Child Protection Agency came and took the kids away from her-temporarily.
Mary Ellen Mark, The "tank" at the Houston County Jail, Texas, 1977
I was doing a story, one of those wonderful kinds of assignments that magazines would give me years ago. The assignment was to photograph youth crime in Texas. The idea was to ride around with the police, and when a kid was arrested, to kind of stay with him or her, and find out about who the child was. It was a wonderful premise for a story, because you really see the children as people, not just as juvenile delinquents. There was a young black girl who had been arrested at a Foley's department store for shoplifting. She was actually thrown in jail. She had a child herself. It was incredible!
Mary Ellen Mark, Wildwood, New Jersey, 1991.
Sometimes writers fictionalize reality. This was a story that the writer had suggested, saying that there was a whole community of lost kids in Wildwood, New Jersey. When I got there, they weren't there! So we just had to change the premise of the story. Instead, I did an atmospheric essay on Wildwood. There were skinheads around, and they were just so mean.
Mary Ellen Mark, Mary Ann and Ophelia, Mississippi, 1990.
"Commercial viability." Everyone's thinking about "which advertisement is this tough picture going to be next to? So-and-so is not going to want a picture of a poor, sad person next to their ad." I was walking along in a cotton field in Mississippi. I just found them.
Mary Ellen Mark, Coney Island, New York, 1994.
I like Coney Island. Everyone likes Coney Island. It's sort of symbolic of New York-American. I found these two Hasidic kids on the beach. I was trying a new camera and went out there to take lots of pictures.