For the past 25 years, photographer Mary Ellen Mark has been entering private worlds to capture the souls of the "unfamous," creating haunting universal images from heartbreaking everyday lives.
January 1992
Essay by Marianne Fulton
Photo Editor: Michael Duerinckx

Ram Prakash Singh and his elephant, Shyama: Great Golden Circus, Ahmedabad, India, 1990.

The keynote of Mary Ellen Mark's work has always been people. Literally from the moment she picked up a camera in her first photography course, no other theme has drawn her away from her primary concern. From heroin addicts in the 1960s to circus performers in the 1990s, people remain at the centre of her engagement with photography. A desire to get close, discover, understand and reveal the complex and rich variations in individual lives makes all of Mark's photographs very personal.

Mark embraced photography suddenly and completely in 1962, during graduate studies at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. She had studied painting and art history for her bachelor's degree from the same university. After graduating, she worked at drafting for a city planner and found she hated it. Deciding to return to school, Mark looked into the Annenberg programme.

She received a scholarship, and from among concentrations such as creative writing and fllmmaking arbitrarily chose photography. That choice determined her career.

"From the very first night, that was it… It was weird. I became obsessed by it. I knew immediately it would be my life's work. I knew I had a chance of being good," she has said. The next day she went out alone on the street to experiment with one of the small cameras each class member had been given to use. Her initial experience of feeling that through photography she now had contact with people, combined with the belief that she could be good at it, changed her life.

Mark had painted and drawn all through her high‑school years in Philadelphia in the late fifties and again in college, but she characterizes painting as a lonely, isolating vocation. She adds that she wasn't "passionate or involved enough in the idea of being a painter." Photography, however, engaged her emotions, intellect and will to succeed in a way painting never had. This total immersion remains a hallmark of her working method.

Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay exemplifies her persistence. Two circumstances stood in the way of this story on the "caged" prostitutes of Bombay; either could have killed it. Mark lacked both financial backing from a publication and access to the women. Two years elapsed between the initial idea and its fruition.

Full of prostitutes, pimps, transvestites and the places they worked, Falkland Road is famous for its brothels, which display the women in rooms open to view but separated from the street by iron bars. Though they seem quite available, the only real access to them is through the door and past the madam.

Having first seen the women beckoning to potential customers in 1968, Mark returned to Falkland Road on all her subsequent trips to India. Each time she tried to photograph there she was verbally abused and pelted with garbage. In October 1978, she decided to make a concentrated effort. Every day she went to Falkland Road and endured both the garbage and insults. In the introduction to her book she wrote: "Every day I had to brace myself, as though I were about to jump into freezing water. But once I was there, pacing up and down the street, I was overwhelmed, caught up in the high energy and emotion of the quarter. And as the days passed and people saw my persistence, they began to get curious. Some of the women thought I was crazy, but a few were surprised by my interest in and acceptance of them. And slowly, very slowly, I began to make friends."

Mark first was befriended by street prostitutes and transvestites, who are at the bottom of the social scale there. Gradually, she was allowed into the caged houses, and she made photographs there until January 1979. The resulting photographs have nothing in common with the stereotype of the prostitute. Instead, they represent young women, their children and their customers with great compassion.

Working in colour with a strobe, Mark was hardly unnoticeable, but she was eventually accepted and allowed to stay. She has no formula for getting people to trust her: "I just think it's important to be direct and honest with people about why you're photographing them and what you're doing. After all, you are taking some of their soul, and I think you have to be clear about that."

Mark approached her work on the Indian circus with a characteristically intense involvement. She had visited her first Indian circus during her initial stay in the country in 1968. The strangeness of two sights stayed with her: a hippopotamus in a tutu and a chimpanzee pushing a baby carriage with a human baby in it. She resolved to put together a story on the circus, but as with Falkland Road a long time elapsed between the idea and its fruition. Over the next 20 years, Mark saw many kinds of circuses in India, but she never had the financial backing to stay and explore the subject. Her chance came in 1989 in the form of a grant from the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House and the Professional Photography Division at Eastman Kodak.

A contortionist with her puppy, Sweety: Great Raj Kamal Circus, Upleta, India, 1989.

Mark made two, three‑month trips in India, travelling with 16 different circuses. She hired both American and Indian assistants. The Indian researcher Dayanita Singh was particularly helpful because she not only translated but contacted all the circus owners and pieced together the complicated logistics. The mechanics and sheer energy needed for three people in search of circuses to travel with heavy photographic equipment was staggering. Mark's personal equipment included four Nikon FM2 cameras and seven lenses; four Leica cameras ‑ two M4‑2s, one M4‑P and one M‑6‑ and five Leitz lenses; one Polaroid SX‑70 camera; four Hasselblad cameras with six lenses; several strobes and flash units; and a half‑dozen assorted light meters. She also used nearly a thousand rolls of Kodak Tri‑X film. In part, the overabundance of equipment reflected her desire to be prepared in the event of breakdown in rural India.

Finding the circuses was sometimes a challenge, as Mark explains: "Even if an owner agrees that you can photograph his circus, he doesn't want to tell you the location until the very last second because they are competitive about locations." For example, the owner of a particular Bengali circus was uncooperative, and Mark had difficulty getting information about the schedule. But she and her assistants didn't give up, and they finally "found out where they were going to be. We went all the way to Benares ‑ there were riots in Benares, but we rushed down there. We rushed to the site, and we came to this empty pit. It had moved two days before. No‑one knew where it went."

Mark photographed circuses from different regions of India: Maharashtra, Bengal and Kerala. Each had its own style. Although the circus originated in Europe, Mark points out that the Indians have adapted it to their own culture, liberally mixing the traditions of East and West. One obvious change has been the addition of animals not generally seen in a Western circus, such as the hippo, some pelicans and even a vulture.

Arjun and his chimpanzee, Mira: Great Royal Circus, Gujarat, India, 1989.

The Indian circus project bears many hallmarks of her previous work, being solely about a group of people and their way of life. By extension, it includes their animals, which seem to comment on human personality and weakness. The unknown performers and trainers move through a larger world perfecting their acts, accepting their particular destiny with grace and determination, letting the photographer into their world.

A small thing within the immensity of India, a travelling circus is not an item of current news, nor does it attract the attention of the national or world media. Yet for Mark it holds insights that go far beyond its apparent significance: "I'm trying to look for certain universals ‑universals that stand for things we all feel. That's why an exotic picture doesn't interest me per se. I go to India to look again because it is a raw and open country. I love it. I think things are openly passionate there… I want to see them as they relate to my own culture and other cultures. I don't want to see them as some exotic magic ritual… I look for things that cross cultural boundaries."

For Mark, the circus tells a story about hope. Each is a closed, self‑sufficient society, persevering in a hard life to create a dream world. They are not what they seem: elephants don't wear glasses. And they are more than they seem: not performers hired to entertain, but a community carrying its world with it.

Mark's photographs reveal the texture of circus life. Close‑up portraits of acrobats and animals take precedence over long shots of the camp. She did not shoot the typical overview from the top row of the grandstand. Instead, she went into the ring itself or into the cage with a bear, or she stood in the centre of the cage as the lions roared and jumped through hoops.

The pictures show the circus as an extended family ‑part of that family being animals. Animals and humans depend completely on one another. The humans feed the animals, and the animals work with the family to provide the food. Mark says that she likes the animals "as humans," meaning, in part, that she takes them exactly as they are presented: a bear standing around in a shiny dress, a chimpanzee with running shoes, a small dog carrying an umbrella.

The animals seem to be interchangeable with dwarfs, children and adults. A dwarf dressed as a gorilla holds a dog, a young girl carries an adult male dwarf and a chimp in a dress puts a protective arm around her trainer. The ironic confusion of identity, age and place in society appeals to Mark's sense of humour.

The performers train constantly to stay in shape. The acrobats work without nets and have to stay agile to avoid disaster. Says Mark: "It's a country full of perfectionists… in one act this guy balances on his head while swinging on a swing 70 feet in the air. I said to him, 'That's incredible! What happens if you fall?' And he replied, 'Death comes.'"

Twenty‑one years after she saw that first costumed hippo, Mark found the resources to return for the long stay. This may be called obsession, but obsession is another word for perseverance, drive, belief in and commitment to one's own vision.

Marianne Fulton, the author of two books on photography, is senior curator of exhibitions and photographic collections for the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York.

Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years, from which these pictures were taken, is a Bulfinch Press Book, Little, Brown and Company, Boston.

Usman the clown with William and Albert, two John Wayne admirers: Great Jumbo Circus, Mangalore, India, 1989.

Acrobats practising: Great Bombay Circus, Limbdi, India, 1990.

Early learners: Great Golden Circus, Ahmedabad, India, 1989.

Twin brothers Tulsi and Baasant: Great Famous Circus, Calcutta, India, 1989.

Hippopotamus and performer: Great Rayman Circus, Madras, India, 1989.

Veeru and Usman with Moti the performing vulture: Great Jumbo Circus, Mangalore, India, 1989.

Mira, Shfali and Pushpa: Great Famous Circus, Calcutta, India, 1989.

Venkesh on Lucky Donkey: Great Jumbo Circus, Mangalore, India, 1989.