Camera Arts
The Changing Face of Photojournalism
October 2001
By Abigail Foerstner
Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark

Mother Teresa in Nirmal Hriday. The Home for the Dying. 1980. Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark. Photograph from Mother Teresa’s Missions of Charity in Calcutta.

Mary Ellen Mark, documentary photographer

"It was so different when I started out (in the 1960s), documentary photography was it. It was a force in magazines, more important than celebrities or fashion. Advertisers needed magazines, now magazines need advertisers," Mark says.

Even though they were made as personal projects, Mark's devastating documentaries about mentally ill women in Ward 81 and Mother Teresa's missions for the dying received widespread publication in the 1970s, a heyday for social activism and documentary photography.

It's much harder now. Art directors and photo editors still want the best possible pictures for their magazines but documentary pictures get rejected from the business side because they don't necessarily sell, she explains. Photographing outcasts and outsiders has become a touchier pursuit in recent years all the way around. Documentary photographers including Mark find themselves occasionally accused of exploiting vulnerable subjects to take compelling pictures. "I hate that. We are not exploiters. We deal in the truth ‑ in reality. People who say that are people who are afraid. If your photographs aren't empty, you're exploitive."

Mark, recently voted the most influential woman photographer of all time in a 1998 poll of readers of the American Photographers Magazine, has traveled the world to photograph the poor and dispossessed, gigolos, prostitutes, gang members, circus performers and runaways. Her empathetic photographs of people on the edge penetrate to powerful metaphors about basic humanity. Mark continues to publish photo essays such as one recently published in The New York Times Magazine about a Hasidic Jewish family with 14 children. She also photographs celebrity and fashion assignments for a variety of publications.