mary ellen mark
January/February 1990
Arts Editor: Doug Balding

Mary Ellen Mark's photographs appear regularly in Life, the London Sunday Times Magazine, National Geographic. Vanity Fair and the New York Times. Her own personal work ranges from Ward 81 (culled from a job doing film stills for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) to Falkland Road (a study of prostitutes in India working with their customers) to Untitled 39: Photographs of Mother Teresa's Mission of Charity in Calcutta. In 1981, '83 and '85, she received the Robert F. Kennedy Award and, in 1986, she won the Phillipe Halsman Award for Photojournalism from the American Society of Magazine Photographers.

Daniel, 9, offers a shoulder to his cousin Teresa, 11. Each day at dawn, the youngsters leave Ripollet gypsy encampment for Barcelona to beg. Spain, 1987

What was it that initially attracted you to photography?
I got into photography in the early sixties. I went to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and then went to the Annenberg School, which at the time was more of a creative school. I took a course in photography, loved it, and decided that was what I wanted to do. I had a Fulbright scholarship for a year and went to Turkey in 1966. From the moment I picked up a camera, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a photographer of people. Contact with people enabled me to make an image. It's something that I still think is incredible, to be able to pick up a camera and make an image with it.

Oblivion comes after inhaling glue. Khartoum, Sudan, 1988

What makes a good picture?

An image that we can recognize and feel something about. Not just because it's exotic and comes from another country, but because it touches something that's universal.

What is more important for a photograph, the subject matter or the composition?

The most important thing in a photo is content. After that, to make that content work and be strong, the picture has to be graphically beautiful. To make a great picture, everything has to be just right. The content first, then a sense of graphics, then a sense of light. The hardest thing in a picture is being able to compress all those feelings you have into one frame ‑ to say it all. Everything has to work. The ability to say what you want to say in a single image is something you worry about all the time, and it never gets easier. And there's no formula for it. Each situation is totally different. I'm thinking of a million different things at once when I'm taking a picture. You relate to something, but then part of your mind is saying, "Am I looking at this clearly? Is it saying what I want to say?" And sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't. I'm always surprised when I get a good picture.

Mother Teresa at the home for the dying. Calcutta, India, 1980.

Why do you primarily shoot in black and white?

I've always loved black‑and‑white photography. I'm the first to admit that, in many ways, color is more difficult and less forgiving, but that's not the reason at all. I just see in black and white. It's a real personal thing.

What body of work are you most proud of?

That's a really hard question. I hope I'm most proud of something I haven't done yet. I've got more to do and more to say. I always think that when something is done, it's done, and the next thing is more difficult. It's like starting all over again. For each story or body of work I've done, I have a very strong personal feeling for it. I don't want to single out one as being the best. They were all different. They all meant much to me: the women in the mental hospital, the prostitutes, Calcutta and Mother Teresa. It's like asking someone, "Which child do you like the best?" I just hope I'm going to continue to get better and make strong visual statements for the rest of my life; or at least for as long as people are making pictures.

Kids learn to play by watching the police. South Dallas, 1988

What makes photography an art?

Art has the ability to evoke a feeling, to really touch people and stir emotions. Whatever the art is whether it's music, painting, photography ‑ that's what you're trying to do. I want to be able to touch something in people and maybe allow them to recognize themselves.

How does photography compare to other art forms in terms of impact?

It's such a difficult question. Photography has a more immediate impact because it represents something real. If you look at a painting or listen to a piece of music, it has an abstraction about it. With a photograph, the subject really existed.

Does television compete with photography?

We remember a photograph longer. In the news media, TV can always get there first. So photography has to do something different. Think about the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald. We really remember the photograph, even though it was captured on television. Think about the famous photograph by Eddie Adams in the Sixties, of the Vietnamese soldier being assassinated by an officer. That was also filmed, but we remember the picture. People remember still pictures.

I don't do news. I do sort of quiet essays. I try to find things that television wouldn't be interested in. TV creates media events, so photographers are going to have to look for things that aren't media events. People will always turn to the TV news first for an explanation of an event. Photography has to do something different. We can't get news before TV ‑ that's something we shouldn't even try to compete with.

“When we’d get real low on money, I’d take Mike’s .45 and I’d go roll a queer.” Rat & Mike, Seattle, 1983

How have magazines changed since you started in the Sixties?

I've seen magazines go through a whole range of trends. Right now, unfortunately, there's this trend to have just the slick, the rich and the celebrities, with less emphasis on the realities of life. I'm hoping that it's just a trend and it'll turn around. I've seen it swing back and forth many times over the last twenty years. If you look at magazines now, they all have celebrities on the cover. I don't think that's all people want to see. I think they want to see the realities of life and strong, solid substance ‑ pictures that matter. I refuse to give up doing them.

So you haven't let those changes affect you?

No, I don't want them to affect me. If anything, it makes me want to do even stronger pictures.

When you take photos, are you just trying to record events, or are you trying to influence people?

I'm trying to touch people with my photos. I'm trying to have people respond to what I respond to.

National Senior Olympics. St Louis, 1989

Why have you been attracted to photographing disadvantaged people?

Those are the voices that need to be heard. They fascinate me.

Is it possible to be objective when you photograph the suffering?

You are never objective. You are never emotionally uninvolved. You're totally involved from beginning to end. Just by editing a contact sheet, you're being subjective. If you don't care, then you're not going to take good pictures.

What would you say to people who claim certain photographers exploit the less fortunate for their own art?

All photography is in a sense exploitative. But why shouldn't less fortunate people have the right to have their pictures taken, too? It's very bigoted to think that they should be ignored. Why should only the rich and glittery people be allowed to be seen in magazines and books? I'm not interested in that. I'm really interested in being a voice for people that need a voice. But I'm also interested in a sense of irony in life and pathos.

Aboriginal boxer and his manager. Australia, 1987

What do you look for when you're considering a subject?

I look for the visually interesting. I look for a sense of irony. I'm always interested in people that live on the fringe of society. I'm interested in the unfamous.

Is it important that your subjects trust you?

Well, they have to have confidence in me to allow me into their lives. It's a big and generous thing for someone to allow you to photograph them, to allow you to be in their lives. There is no formula for that. That's really important. If you start being phony, people pick that up immediately. You have to have a strong conviction for what you're doing.