January 1991

Monkey Trainer’s Daughter, India, 1981

ASMP member Mary Ellen Mark is one of the foremost documentary photographers in the world. This interview is excerpted from 'The Photo Essay: Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark" which is one of a Smithsonian Series of Books, "Photographers at Work." Some of the other books in the series are also on ASMP members, among them Joel Meyerowitz and Jay Maisel. The books consist of interviews and extensive selections of photographs, are 64 pages in length, and sell for $15.95.

Q. You've been described as both a documentary photographer and a photojournalist Do you make a distinction between the two?

A. I have never known the difference between one and the other. To me a documentary photographer and a photojournalist are pretty much the same thing. If I have to make a distinction, I'm more a documentary photographer- don't think of myself as a photo-essayist in the sense that I always consider a magazine layout when I'm working. To be honest with you, I always try to think of the specific pictures. What's important to me is to make strong, individual pictures. When I look at a documentary photographer or photojournalist whose work I really love- somebody like Eugene Smith-it's because the images are single images. I think of his great picture stories as stories where the images really stood by themselves. In Life's "Country Doctor," for example, you remember each image. They weren't only linking images -each one was strong, and each can stand alone. I think in great magazine or newspaper photography every picture can stand on its own; it doesn't need the other pictures to support it to tell a story.

Q. Why did you choose to do photojournalism?

A. It wasn't a choice, it was just what I wanted to do. When I became interested in photography, which was in 1963, I didn't think: "Should I do still-life photography? Should I be a landscape photographer? Or should I do commercial work?" I knew that I wanted to photograph people and I wanted to do documentary essays on social situations.

Q. How do your assignments come to you? Do you ever go to an editor or an art director with your own ideas for stories, or do they usually call you and commission you to do a piece?

A. I think it works both ways. I'd say it is about fifty-fifty. It varies but I'm still constantly working on ideas. I even hire people to research ideas for me, and I'm always looking for specific things that I want to do. There are themes that are visually interesting to me. I don't want to do the kind of photo essay anymore that isn't going to bring me images that add to my work as a whole. That's always something I have in the back of my mind; I've always tried to do that and now even more so. I want to make the magazine work I do, the documentary work I do, add up to something. At the end of my life I want to look back at what I've done and say, "This hasn't been for nothing."

Q. How much control does an assignment editor or art director exercise over what you do?

A. There are two stages. There's the photo editor, who usually gives you the assignment, and the art director, who designs the layout. A good photo editor will edit the take with you; he will trust your editing and you'll have a positive working relationship. But then when you get to the design stage, you have no control. I don't know of any photographer who has control over the design, and the way a layout is done can really change the effect of the photographs. It's difficult, and sometimes upsetting, but I've learned to accept it.

Q. Why do you think that photographers of your caliber and reputation have so little control over this? Is a designer in effect radically changing what you're saying?

A. I hate it when people crop photographs. Whenever I'm teaching a workshop or working with students I always say, "You must crop in your camera, not afterwards." I've always been really careful when I make a frame- I'm not saying every frame I do is perfect, but if I select a frame for a magazine, I'm picking it because it's a good picture. When it's cropped I think, "God, it just doesn't make sense. The picture's no good any more. It's not what I shot." But photographers have never had control over layout with magazines- not even Eugene Smith, and this made him very unhappy.

But In the end I feel I always have the photograph and if it's a good photograph, one day it will be published uncropped. That's important to me. There have been some layouts that I've really been pleased with, and I'm always thrilled when that happens.

Exercise group, South Beach, Florida, 1979

Q. Do you try to be an objective observer in situations you are photographing? Is this possible?

A. No. I don't think you're ever an objective observer. By making a frame you're being selective, then you edit the pictures you want published and you're being selective again. You develop a point of view that you want to express. You try to go into a situation with an open mind, but then you form an opinion and you express it in your photographs. It is very important for a photographer to have a point of view- that contributes to a great photograph.

Q. Your photographs are graphically very simple, very resolved, but they are emotionally very powerful.

A. What I'm trying to do is make photographs that are universally understood, whether in China or Russia or America‑photographs that cross cultural lines. So if the project is about street performers, it touches those little things and whimsies we're all interested in -animals and people and anthropomorphic qualities. If it's about famine in Ethiopia, it's about the human condition all over the world: It's about people dying in the streets of New York as much as it's about Ethiopia. I want my photographs to be about the basic emotions and feelings that we all experience.

Q. What kind of research do you do before you go off on assignment?

A. The major research I do is find contacts who can help me where I'm working. For example, when I photographed the ethnic communities in Sydney, Australia, for National Geographic, I found a woman in Sydney who would help me with my research before I arrived. That way I could spend all my time on location doing photographs rather than researching on a telephone in my hotel room.

Q. How many assistants do you usually take?

A. It varies. I started working with assistants only a few years ago, but they are a great help, and whenever possible I work with one. Sometimes I hire a local person to help, but I prefer to work with the same person over a long period of time. On big commercial assignments- advertising or work for film studios that requires complex lighting set-ups- I use more than one assistant. With 35mm documentary work I work with one person.

Q. Does a project take over your life the way an actor's life is taken over?

A. Yes, of course, especially the prostitutes of Bombay, because that story was such an amazing experience. I lived and breathed and dreamt it. It was an incredible time in my life. Each day was like a living soap opera. Their lives were very dramatic.

208B-001-019 Camp Goodtimes, Malibu, California, 1984

Q. What about coming back to your everyday life after that?

A. The separation from that story was very, very difficult, because I thought I would never see many of the women again. Ending a story is always difficult, especially when you have come to know and care about people.

Q. What's it like to be away for long periods in places that are really foreign to you, alien to you. Is it lonely? Is it difficult?

A. The most difficult part is actually preparing for my departure. For example, in two weeks I'm leaving for three months in India, and the idea of everything I have to do before I leave, and also of finally getting through customs with all my film and cameras, is overwhelming. Once I'm there, I'm immersed in my work, and that part is wonderful.

Q. When you first started there were very few women photographers. Is it easier now?

A. When I first started, there were few female photographers, but now, happily, there are many more. I think it's in advantage. In all other life experience it's harder being a woman; but I think for a woman photographer- as a photojournalist particularly- the whole idea of access becomes easier because people are less threatened by a woman.

Q. How do you perceive what's happening with the magazines today in terms of editorial content?

A. In terms of the kind of work that I do, which is social-documentary photography, magazines today are at a low point simply because of this huge em­phasis, more than ever, on glossy celebrity photographs. But I'm encouraged by Life magazine: when I return from India I will shoot three strong documentary stories for them. I really believe magazines will again publish strong documentary work, because so much of the slick work that is being published now is empty, and because real documentary magazine photography is just so much stronger and more important for the world to see. I am an idealist about social documentary photography.

Q. Are there assignments that you turn down?

A. I turn down a lot of stories. I want to do only documentary work that is important to me. Commercial work can help support my personal work, and so I'll accept most reasonable commercial assignments. But I want my documentary work to always be something special, something that I love.