Documenting the extraordinary lives of the “cage girls” on Bombay’s notorious Falkland Road.
Interview by Robert Haas
Putla, a thirteen year‑old prostitute, comes from a small village. She was sold to the brothel by her mother. Madam: "Putla's family is very poor. Her mother brought her here from the village last year. She was only twelve then. But her family needed money desperately. Her mother still comes to visit her ever every year.” Mary Ellen says, "Saroja ‑ the madam- has complete control over her girls. The relationship is one of master and slave, but also of mother and daughter. The girls worship and fear their madam. One nigh,t Putla, Saroja's youngest girl, allowed a drunken customer to have her for only three rupees. Saroja grabbed her by the hair and pounded her with her fists. Putla didn't utter a'sound. The other girls stood by and watched silently. Five minutes after her beating Putla was ready for work again, her face washed and her dress changed. Later that night I saw Putla embracing Saroja and giving her a back massage."
It is actually some considerable while ago that Mary Ellen Mark first came across a certain street in Bombay. Festooned then, as it is today, with the bright colours of the cage girls, the prostitutes of Bombay, the Falkland Road cut deeply into her consciousness.
From the years that she had spent traveling in India, she had known about the street, it was after all quite a “famous” (not to say infamous) street in India. Tourists would sometimes walk by and, at some comfortable distance, look to see the sights. Mary Ellen knew however, that for all this, there was little doubt that anybody had ever really seen what life was actually like, behind the doors and cages of the patchwork brothels that made up Falkland Road.
“The image from the exterior, the quickly taken pictures that I had seen published in newspapers –showing girls standing gesturing in cages- they made the street look as if it was much more forbidding and obscene that it really was. It wasn’t obscene at all. I felt that behind the doors of the brothels there was a real life that I wanted to know about. There was, I was right! There was an incredible life. When you really look at that life, and not just from the outside, you can see that there is inhumanity, that it’s about struggle and about survival. I wanted to experience that and I wanted other people to see it too.”
Mary Ellen’s photographs of the prostitutes of the Falkland Road are positively vibrant with life and colour, she makes no excuses for them being so and regards colour as the most highly suited medium for the subject. As with another series of photographs that she produced on the theme of Miami Beach, she feels that likewise with Falkland Road, colour enhances the reality of the situation.
“Colour is such an important part of the lives of the people in these pictures, it really does heighten the reality and for that reason I think that colour is really useful. I hate colour when it’s just pretty colour. That has never been my reason for using it as a medium. “ With particular regard to her pictures of the prostitutes she says, “Colour particularly defines who these people are and what their life is like, that is very important.”
Interestingly, it emerges that Mary Ellen has in fact been criticized for not doing the Falkland Road story in black and white. I asked her who and why?
“A feminist in England –I think she’s from New Society- wrote that she didn’t feel that the photographs were “grotty” enough, messy enough, dirty enough. However, the fact is that it was much more realistic to do these pictures in colour, since black and white would have emphasized too much of the negative part of the lives of these women. I wasn’t interested in making a judgement –either negative or positive- about these women.
“I personally loved the women in Bombay, I thought that they were wonderful people. When I made the book “Falkland Road”, it was in the hope that people would make up their own minds. I feel that in a sense, if I had done the pictures in black and white I may have appeared to have been making a much stronger moral judgement. That’s something that I didn’t want to do.
The so-called feminist had argued that Mary Ellen had romanticized the women in the pictures, and claimed that she had no right as a foreigner to take such photographs. The criticism was couched in rather harsh language and bore certain tell-tale signs of an enormous prejudice against prostitutes. The critic tripped over herself rather towards the end of her piece by referring to the women in the pictures as “tarts”. So much for sympathy from a feminist.
Mary Ellen’s subjects are in fact impartially observed, and photographed with an inherent respect. I mentioned to her however, that in the taking of her pictures she must inevitably make a judgement of some kind, due to the fact that it is her own mind that is working and her own particular outlook that is being put into effect. Obviously it is a strong element of “her” that is present in the pictures. Hence, it is of as much interest that people should interpret her pictures, as it is that they should mis-interpret them from time to time.
“It’s not that I’m saying that everyone has to love the photographs, or even understand them. Basically, Falkland Road is a subtle book; it’s not pornography, and it’s not fuzzy David Hamilton pictures. People can’t place it, they can’t easily put it into any kind of context. It doesn’t fit into a mould and I don’t expect everyone to understand it.”
Pursuing the matter, I asked Mary Ellen what her thoughts were about a project prior to her tackling it; whether she ever thought about a subject in terms of conveying a particular idea or if she went into a venture with the intention of delving deep and bringing something out.
“I go into something wanting to know what it’s about, to experience it and “live” it, and with the intention of photographing it as closely as possible, to get as close to it as I possibly can and with no pre-conceived notions. Of course you have a point of view, but I try to make my pictures and my point of view with subtlety. I don’t like to slam people over the head, I think that people should look at something and make up their own minds about how they feel.”
Mary Ellen feels that both of her books, “Falkland Road” and “Ward 81” –about a women’s mental hospital in Oregon- are very susceptible to mis-understanding.
“This is precisely because I don’t want to hit people over the head. I have my feelings and I know what I meant for the books to do, but people could look at the book on the hospital and say to themselves “these people are terrible” and feel revulsion. The reaction that I hate, with respect to Falkland Road for instance –and the one that makes me feel that they have missed the point- is the response of “how did they let you take the pictures” That shouldn’t be people’s concern, the concern should be in looking at the pictures and really feeling that they’re getting a glimpse of the humanity of the women, not how the photographer got in and how they allowed the photographs to be taken. Because that assumes that they’re looking at the pictures in a pornographic way. They’re not pornographic pictures, that was not the intention.”
Nepalese girls waiting for customers, "Technically, these photographs always had to be done very quickly you'd see something and you'd have to catch it, but I had a system worked out. I mostly worked with a small flash and then immediately sent my film back to be processed, so that I knew that everything was working fine. I tried not to think so much about technique. I just tried to 'experience' and to take pictures.
Pulabai, a madam, with the baby of one of her girls in the brothel. The madam has named the baby 'Miss Mary’. The baby subsequently died when she was two months old of high fever. Mary Ellen: "I go into something wanting to know what it's about, to experience it and 'live' it, and with the intention of photographing it as closely as possible, to get as 'close' to it as I possibly can and with no pre‑conceived notions' .
Women waiting for customers on the Falkland Road. Mary Ellen says, "Colour partially defines who these people are and what their life is like, that is very important.” She feels that it was a much more sensible thing to do the pictures in colour since black and white film would have emphasised too much of the negative part of the lives of the women.
Champa, a transvestite, dressed as an “English lady". Mary Ellen ‑ "The transvestites tend to live clustered together in a block of cages and small brothel rooms right next to each other. My closest friend in that communitv was Champa, a transvestite -he doesn't solicit customers for himself but like many madams he does have a very close relationship with a boyfriend, Yamin, a taxi driver who is very handsome and very masculine."
More street performers in Delhi "The bear, who is trained and very clever, is giving his trainer a 'double nelson'. The trainer is wondering why he ever taught the bear to do this!"
A very young street performer in Delhi with his monkeys. Part of another series that Mary Ellen produced on the theme of street performers. Her subjects are to a great extent impartially observed and photographed with all inherent respect.
This rapidly taken picture was taken in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It was part of a story that Mary Ellen did on Asian women. The couple here were actually man and wife and the fighting was very much for real. With much of Mary Ellen's work, speed of execution is of the essence, a direct and automatic response to the subject. Just as with the prostitute pictures. "Technically, these photographs had to be done very quickly , you’d see something and you'd have to catch it.
Street performers in Delhi ‑ this goes for the animals as well as the people.! The dog appears to be proudly doing its 19th century portrait bit and the cow -though sacred ‑‑ is allowed to be part of the act. Mary Ellen spent a great deal of time with the various street performers in India, over a period of about two months.
Prostitute of the Falkland Road feeding her baby. Mary Ellen feels that in her pictures colour enhances the reality of the situation; "colour is such an important part of the lives of the people in these pictures, it really does heighten the reality and for that reason I think that colour is really useful. I hate colour when it's just pretty colour ‑ that has never been my reason for using it as a medium.
With her particular depth of feeling, it comes as no surprise to discover that Mary Ellen has never done any personal project straight out of the blue. Invariably, a project has come to fruition as the result of years of serious thinking on a certain theme. This was indeed the case with her “ward 81” story as well. She thinks that she can actually track the origin of the sory back to her early years at school, when at the age of eight, she made a trip with her class to a mantal hospital.
From her own admission she says, “It’s a pretty weird thing for a third grade school class to do.” As well as this, her own father had been hospitalized a couple of times. Hence, the whole subject of mental illness was something that she had become very curious about. She firmly decided to see for herself, what life inside an institution was really like. It would involve going to live in an institution for a period. That’s what she did, for six weeks!
“In a way, I almost think that it wasn’t long enough. To do Falkland Road, it ook me months. “ Mary Ellen had her own room off the main ward where the women lived. “As with the prostitutes, this was an incredible experience. Each day I would wake up with great anticipation, knowing that I would be witnessing something extraordinary. As a photographer, that is what means the most to me, the “experience”, living the experience, not so much what happens afterwards.
“Of course I care very much about having beautiful prints, and making a book and so on, but the really emotional time for me, the time that I’m really inspired, is the period of time when the work is actually happening. You come back after a job and you look at your contact sheets, you’re excited. If you have some good shots the you make prints. You go through all the hassle of getting a publisher to make a book, the book comes out, and then there’s usually the big let-down after that. There’s nothing like the “high” that you have when you are actually working.”
Naturally, Showing such enormous dedication to the subject that she was tackling, I asked Mary Ellen if it was possible for her to put into words what sort of a “comment” she felt she was making with regards to the women mental patients.
“I wanted to get very close to them, I wanted to look for some clues as to what it was like to be mentally ill. It’s very hard to know, unless you’ve been mentally ill yourself –which I have not. I wanted to touch on what it felt like, how terrible it felt to be mentally ill, and also I wanted to touch on possible clues and reasons why. Nobody knows anything about mental illness, it's a mystery. Not only does nobody know why, but nobody knows how awful the experience is, and what it feels like. By attempting to show that in my pictures, I am hoping that people will be more sympathetic to the experience."
Mary Ellen uses black & white Tri‑X film rated at 32OASA ‑ "my negatives turn out really well when I do that'‑ and for colour work she either uses Kodachrome 64 or Ektachrome 400. She uses many different makes of camera, though they are all 35mm; Leicas ‑ M2s and M3s, Olympus' and Nikons.
"Olympus have been amazingly generous in their support to photographers" she says, and she continues ‑ "the great advantage of their camera is that it's so compact, for a single lens reflex to be that small is great."
I commented however, that it occurred to me that her photography was much more of the 'Leica type' rather than the SLR type, since much of her photography had such a spontaneity to it.
"I work in different ways, with single-lens reflexes and with Leicas. When I'm shooting outside and I have to shoot in a hurry, I use a Leica, because it's a faster camera. Even with all the winders and everything that single‑lens reflexes have nowadays, they're still not as fast as a Leica. But for interiors, when I'm using a strobe, I like to use a single‑lens reflex. Also for certain kinds of portraiture I use an SLR. I have just done an assignment for Life, doing portraits; they're not all 'caught', they're all 'directed'. For that sort of work I prefer to look through the lens."
I asked her if she could tell me about some of the more particular photographic difficulties that she encountered while photographing the prostitutes.
"Technically, these photographs always had to be done very quickly. You'd see something and you'd have to catch it, but I had a system worked out. I mostly worked with a small flash and then immediately sent my film back to be processed, so that I knew that everything was working fine. I tried not to think so much about technique. I just tried to 'experience' and to take pictures. I used a small bounce card; if I'd had a white ceiling, then I would have bounced from that, but I didn't, so I had to make do with what I had. But the most difficult aspect of it was to shoot fast."
According to Mary Ellen, the fact that America has most recently taken an extremely conservative turn, has made it increasingly difficult for tough journalism to be published in magazines. As a consequence it has become increasingly difficult for the documentary photographer to secure publication of controversial work. The Sunday Times magazine in London of course did a cover story on Falkland Road, but not a single journalistic magazine in the States even touched it.
"They're all terrified of it here."
A small piece was reprinted in Ms magazine in the States (almost in the form of a magazine review) and by American Photographer ‑ who, according to Mary Ellen, totally cropped and destroyed the work. “it was a throw-away, I would rather that it had not been published at all.” The national magazines were afraid to even acknowledge it in the States.
"That was extraordinary to me, whereas in London The Sunday Times covered it, in Paris Match is going to do something on it, in Germany ‑ Stern just did something on it, in Holland it was published. In Europe, no problem, in America, they were afraid of it."
Surely prostitution could not be that much of a taboo subject in the States?
"No, it's just that right now it's very difficult to get the material published. It's not the fault of the magazine photography editors, because they all wanted to publish it. It's the fault of the people at the top; the publishers and high editorial people, who are afraid of that kind of subject, afraid for their audience, afraid for their advertising."
Mary Ellen makes particular mention of Michael Rand, the Art Director of The Sunday Times magazine, whom she holds in very high esteem.
"The Sunday Times is still one of the magazines that has the guts to do strong stories ‑ even now."
The renowned Geo magazine has also given her the opportunity to work with great freedom and scope. The person who she works with for Geo in New York is in fact the amazing photographer Thomas Hoepker, who is the Executive Editor for the magazine in New York. Hoepker's own images are quite startling at times.
"It's a great challenge to work for an art director like that, someone who is a great photographer in his own right, indeed one of the greatest journalistic photographers ever. You know that his standards are extremely high and you know that he has personal experience of the difficulties involved in going off and doing a story. He has a real sense of appreciation for something good, and he trusts the photographers that he hires. It's an extraordinary experience working with him."
Another aspect of Mary Ellen's photography is the work that she does on film sets and she feels that there is a kind of similarity of approach in her work in this field as related to her personal work.
"In a way it fits in very well with my way of working. It's not easy to work on a movie set, you have to work quickly and you have to catch things. Everyone's so busy, that sometimes you don't even have the time to get the actors aside, so you have to grab what you can grab, I'm good at that sort of thing. Also of course it's given me the opportunity to watch some really talented and great people at work."
I asked her if she could ever see herself going into movies?
"I would like to make documentaries, but not features. I'm not a fantasy person, I don't have a great sense of fantasy. Reality is what really fascinates me."
Her advice to the aspiring photographer?
"I would say that it's very important to build up a good portfolio. I would also say that nothing is easy, and that it becomes harder. When I first started taking pictures I used to think after ten years it'll be easy, or at least easier. Now it's seventeen years later and it's harder, so much harder than it was in the beginning. It becomes harder because your criticism of yourself becomes tougher."