See the world with photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark, but be prepared for a rough trip.
April 1989

See the world with photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark, but be prepared for a rough trip.

She has photographed the homeless for Life magazine, immigrant residents of Sydney, Australia, for National Geographic, the Dallas drug zone for Texas Monthly, and the starving in Ethiopia for Paris Match.

These are a few of the places where Mark has sojourned, sometimes staying as long as several months to gain both the trust of her subjects and the understanding to treat them with care as well as honesty. Her pictures are strong ‑a prostitute in Bombay's fetid red‑light district at work with a client, an English junkie sticking a needle into her arm, an adolescent runaway done up to sell in a slinky black cocktail dress, an African mother with the carefully wrapped corpse of her baby. And she has won over a dozen awards for these images‑recently the 1988 World Press Award for an "outstanding body of work throughout the years." But however gripping the images are, they are not voyeuristic. While people tend to compare Mark's unflinching pictures to those of Diane Arbus, they inevitably modify their remarks to allow for Mark's particular gift for empathy.

Homeless Children, Khartoum, Sudan, 1988. Mark's pictures display her particular gift for empathy.

Mark, 48, looks like a person who can be trusted. She is beautiful in an ageless way, black hair pulled straight back in a long braid She has a soft voice, an open, inquiring manner, and a direct gaze. Sitting on a couch in the sunny New York loft where she lives with her husband, filmmaker Martin Bell,she radiates a combination of self‑confidence and vulnerability, intelligence and kindness. It's hard to imagine her behind the camera on some of her more harrowing shoots. And, as it happens, she's about to embark on a project that has a more "lyrical" side.

"I'm going to India again, to the south," she says. Then she becomes firmly vague. "I have a theme, but I want to do it first ‑to see if I can do it- before I talk about it." She will spend a couple of months in India, then return there this fall for more shooting. The subject, she hints, is "strange, but not terribly depressing.

"I think I'll always love the incredibly strong story," she says, "but I really think it's important to push yourself in ways you might not have tried. I'll always do people ‑I'll never be a still‑life photographer‑ but I'd like to work at something that's more broad."

Mark was studying painting and art history at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1960s when she decided to take a course in photography. A year later she was finishing a graduate degree in photojournalism at the university's Annenberg School of Communications, and the year after that she was in Turkey taking photographs on a Fulbright fellowship. A 1969 Look assignment to cover London's teenage heroin addicts brought her recognition as a world-class photojournalist.

Mark with a friend.

Mark chooses her commercial work carefully, and the result is that her assignments are often as powerful as the projects she takes on by herself, such as an Oregon mental hospital, Seattle runaways, and Falkland Road prostitutes. "I want to feel," she says, "that every documentary story I do, I'm going to put such a strong personal investment into it that it's going to be great for the magazine and for me.

"I think of these kinds of jobs as grants, really. Often I'll be able to make a couple of images that are really part of my own work and can stand alone. That's what interests me in journalistic work anyway ‑images that don't necessarily have to be linked to other images to be compelling."

Her trip to India is the first personal project Mark has found time to do in years. "It's very important to pick up on your own and do things. If you sit around waiting for the great assignment, it doesn't come through," she says. What does come through, in all of Mark's work, is an enormous social passion, for "people on the fringes," as she says, for "people who haven't had as much of a chance."

‑Margaret Moorman