“I’M Not A Missionary"
Mary Ellen Mark talks about her pictures and the role of the photographer.
May 1985
Bv Ketaki Sheth

Photograph by Ketaki Sheth

Amongst contemporary American photojournalists, one of the names one associates with periodicals such as Life, Geo, Stern, American Photographer, is Mary Ellen Math's, recently estranged from the Magnum co-operative with which she had been associated for many years. It is difficult to categorise the body of her work as photojournalism per se. If we define photojournalism as that which informs, is newsworthy, makes clearer through visuals, or a report, then Mark's work would be a highly personalised concept of this. Mark herself describes her work as 'social documentary stories selecting 'subjects that I think are worth being seen; worlds that I can go into, that I think people should see.' Apart from photofeatures published in magazines, her three books include Passport (Lustrum Press, 1974), Ward 81 (Simon & Schuster, 1979) and the controversial Falkland Road (Alfred A Knopf, 1981), which has been banned in India.

Imprint: Did the social, political and moral climate of the '60s propel you to become a photojournalist? What was the state of photojournalism then in the US? Were you specifically trained for the job?

Mary Ellen Mark: I started working as a photographer in 1964; as a practicing photojournalist in 1967. During the years 1963-64, I was a student of photography at the Annenburg School of Communications, University of Pennsylvania. When I was there, it was run by a man named Gilbert Seldes, who was very avant-garde, particularly for that time. He was an all-time person in radio; he had been real innovative in radio. The photography school was run in a very free way - we were given independent assignments and I had a really good teacher who worked as a magazine photo editor in New York. So, it was an excellent way to learn magazine photography. But the school has changed a lot now. It's very academic and theoretical; I don't even think they teach photography now.

It was a very exciting time when I started out - the '60s. There were wonderful demonstrations to photograph; there was a great climate for taking pictures in New York, and I was lucky I had the chance. I would go to these demonstrations - there would be great anti-Vietnam marches one week, and pro ones the next. There was such a range of things going on: protest marches, the women's movement, runaway kids. And there were magazines specifically interested in documentary style stories, like Life and Look. In fact Look gave me one of my early breaks.

“You can’t really be an invisible fly on the wall unless you are in the midst of a great event, like a war or something.”

What was the Look assignment? Was it the first picture story you published?

Actually, I started working before 1967, when I think about it. When I was at university, I worked for the alumni magazine - that was how I first learnt the rules of doing an assignment. But in New York City my first assignment was when I worked for a Catholic magazine, Jubilee, doing assignments. They gave a lot of work to documentary photographers at the time. It was my first break. My big break was when I met Pat Carbine who was the magazine editor of Look while I was at university. She said to call her when I came to New York City. So I did, and she gave me some assignments for Look. I did a lot of small assignments in the beginning. One of them was on a child genius; another was on an actress who was a victim of a stroke. Then finally, in 1968, I heard that Fellini was making a film in Italy, so I suggested to Look that I do a story on him. So they sent me and that was a major break and a great opportunity.

At the panel discussion on the picture essay at me International Centre for Photography last week, you mentioned how Mother Teresa (Life, July 1980) was perhaps one of the most aware of and alert to the camera subjects you have ever photographed. Could you elaborate a little?

Well, you know, you wouldn't really expect it of her. I mean, if you ask her about current popular things like the Beatles or Muhammad Ali, she doesn't know. But as far as what's going on around her at any precise moment, she's a hundred per cent clear in all directions. At one point in Calcutta, I was trying with a long lens to photograph her feet - there was quite a crowd. In all this, she was quite aware of my presence even at that distance and tucked her feet in the folds of her sari. I don't think I've ever photographed anyone quite like her.

Can you describe some other encounters/experiences with people you have photographed in the past?

Well, always, some people are easier to photograph than others. When you photograph people who are famous, it can be quite complicated because some people are tired of being photographed, or they simply don't like it. I think one of my most unpleasant experiences most recently was photographing Brooke Shields for the cover of a magazine. It was so frustrating. First of all, I had to wait around, I couldn't get access for four days. This was in the Bahamas. To top it all, just before I was leaving, the mother of Brooke Shields said to me, "You're not good enough for my daughter; you should stick to photographing Mother Teresa and cripples and cancer patients." Sometimes you have to deal with people of this nature, and at other times you have to bounce it off and laugh, especially if it is with people you don't really care about, like Brooke Shields's mother. If someone I really respected said something like this, I would be devastated. Everything is a question of balance. You have to sense people and psych them out and feel who they are. You can't blast in there and do what you want. Part of this job is to realise who they are. One must be sensitive and not push too hard in their direction. With Mother Teresa, for instance, you simply cannot invade her environment or disrupt what's going on. Each situation calls for something different. If you are assigned to go to someone's house and photograph a family, you first come and meet them and then begin. But when you are out on the streets, like the runaway kids story in Seattle (Life, July 1983), it has always to be confrontational.

So, you never really adopt an invisible, fly-on-the-wall method in such circumstances, like on the streets in Seattle...?

No. In such cases, I start off with the camera around my neck because I think it is much better to be direct right from the start than to not wear your camera, to make friends and then suddenly whip your camera out. Then it's like you're out to use somebody. You can't really be an invisible fly on the wall unless you are in the midst of a great event like a war or something. I always have my camera around my neck so that everyone is clear about what I'm doing. It sometimes can lead to hostility, but you then have to deal with that. You have to be interested in people, that's what's most important. That's why I don't think I could ever be a great landscape photographer or a wildlife cameraman, because I'm not that interested in animals or landscape. It's best to photograph what you're interested in.

I'm interested in people. That's why I couldn't be a great wildlife or landscape photographer.

On assignment, do you set out with a point of view or does this shape along as you go deeper into the story?

I believe in a point of view. I think you always have a point of view. I try not to be narrow-minded before I go into anything, to be open about changing my mind about someone or an event or whatever. Of course, you can't help being prejudiced in certain things and you go in feeling someone is good or bad. It's hard to be totally objective. About Falkland Road and the prostitutes in Bombay, for instance, there's no question in my mind that the more time I spent with them, I thought they were great. And before I went in to do the story, I was thinking, what are they going to be like, are they going to be tough, hardened women? They aren't at all. They are survivors. I learnt that as I went along.

There are some who have described Falkland Road (Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1981) as a powerful, complex and disturbing social document and others who feel it is voyeuristic and exploitative. It certainly draws attention to some important ethical issues in the field of social documentary photography. On the one hand, there is a strong feeling that one must share that world with those who walk around with blinkers. On the other, it suggests invading a territory and returning with a personal gain. Where does one draw the line? Do you feel you have to adopt an emotionally resilient attitude?

I would say without question, that Falkland Road was the most fascinating assignment I have ever done. I feel closer to those women than I have to any people I have ever photographed and I was the saddest when I had to leave. I was devastated when it was all over. I think about them more than I have anyone else and on each trip I try to return there and meet some of the girls, especially Saroj (to whom the book is dedicated). I decided I wanted to do it in 1968 when I first went to India. It was always something at the back of my mind. When I went back to India, each successive year, I would go to Falkland Road because I thought it was an incredible place, an extraordinary place - I'd walk around and see the women and I'd really want to know more about them. Finally, 10 years after that first trip, I convinced Geo to send me to India to do the story (it eventually ran in Stern). I got closer and closer to the women and got to learn more about them. My friendship with Saroj gave me an entry into the world.

From the beginning, I knew I didn't just want to photograph the women behind the cages, from the streets. I wanted to photograph them with the customers. I wanted people to realise that these women are not bad or dirty or whatever; particularly when compared to prostitution in the US, where there's so much drug use. In India, it's strictly a story about survival.

I think where you draw the line is if pictures misrepresent or distort. And here, you have to very carefully select and edit your transparencies before you give them to a publisher or an editor. For example, there were photographs of an abortion clinic I went to in Bombay where the girls from Falkland Road would go. There was this really obnoxious doctor who performed the operations and allowed me to photograph. I knew I couldn't publish photographs of these women undergoing abortions. Also, there were some pictures I had where a madam and one of her girls had a terrible physical fight, but I knew I couldn't publish it because people would interpret it incorrectly. I was very closely involved in the actual making of the book. I wrote the text, the captions, I did the selection. I never wanted anything to be misrepresented. I wanted to photograph every aspect of their lives. If you are photographing prostitutes and you don't show them selling their bodies to men, then you can't capture the strength and the strong survival instinct these women have. I don't feel the pictures are erotic, I never intended them to be.

You describe the women as strong, tough, defiant. But some look transparently vulnerable, particularly to the world of the camera. Like the young teenaged prostitute, the epileptic being dressed up by the madam, a young woman bathing during her periods. Is it fair to freeze these undecided moments in their lives?

I prefer to photograph vulnerable people - people that I feel haven't had a break in life. I did want to show their sexual and emotional vulnerability. I think people like this are the only people worthy of being photographed. I felt very sympathetic and close to them.

Was an advantage in this situation being a foreign woman? How did you overcome the language problem?

Yes, it was an advantage. The social structure in Asia is so defined. So they may not have opened up to an Indian photojournalist that easily because he or she would immediately be slotted in his or her rank in society. Perhaps they would be more embarrassed to open up to an Indian. With me, they couldn't quite place me. In fact, they were quite amused by the way I dressed and curious about my being single. About the language problem, I had an Indian with me most of the time except in the most intimate of situations where they preferred not to have him around.

Despite the best of your intentions, sometimes, as in the case of the magazine American Photographer which titled the feature Love Means Never Having To Weir A Sari, the sensational aspect of the editorial world seems to have scored. How do you deal with this problem?

I was so furious, I was absolutely infuriated. It was terrible, it was everything I didn't want the book to be. I felt so devastated and paranoid. Here I had been so careful, doing the layout, the captions, the text, before they ran the pictures. It was some editor thinking - well, this is a punchy title, readers will love it. Sometimes, it can get even worse, like when my Indian street performers piece appeared in an Italian magazine. Despite my handling of the text, captions, et al, they linked the story with an introductory line suggesting child exploitation in India. A complete distortion. My story and pictures had nothing to do with it. And street performers are a tradition and not any form of child labour, which is what they linked it with. Again, an editor who wanted a snappy lead. I'm told it was the fault of the agent, but I don't believe it - I think it was the fault of the magazine. The agent wrote me a long letter of apology. I think it was just that the magazine wanted something snappy.

"I prefer to photograph vulnerable people - people who haven't had a break in life.”

How would you describe the intentions of your work?

The intentions of my work... that's a complicated question. I think I take photographs because I want people to see them. I pick subjects that I think are worth being seen; worlds that I can go into that I think people should see. So in India, I was particularly interested in doing real sociological stories, not just the exotic Indian picture that we see. India is the most exotic country in the world and people can take exotic photographs; there's no place like it. But I was more interested in doing social documentary stories - and sharing these with people. We can take it story by story.

With Falkland Road, it was my intention to find out what that street was like. Once I realised how these women were really survivors and that their strength and courage could really be related to every society, not just India, I wanted other people to realise that. It's universal. These women are not dirty or bad, and in India, as I said before, prostitution is simply and strictly a story about survival. In the end it always boils down to survival in any form of prostitution. I really do see a strong relationship between India and America in social documentary stories and this always interests me.

With the street performers... well, I had always seen these guys on the streets. You always associate snake charmers with India or the acrobats or whatever. But I wanted to know where they came from, because then you get to know something personal and human about them. They become more than just the oddity or the kind of strange fascination that snake charmers hold. You know that he's got a family too, that his trade and tradition go together, that there's a real perfection to his craft. So, I thought it would be interesting to tell a story about it.

In Calcutta, with Mother Teresa, I just always wanted to go there. I became more interested in the people that were there than her. I mean, she's a great woman, and she's done some amazing things, but the people there -it's that kind of survival instinct again, that's what really caught me. So it's stories like this, even like the runaway kids of Seattle, that can relate to any place in the world. It would be interesting if a story like that could run in India, so that people would realise that even in America, there are those out on the street. Everyone's always picking on India and saying how can you take it, but my God, we have it in our own country too. At least in India there's a community and people take care of one another. But here in the US, you are totally isolated. When you are on the street, you are alone. So that aspect interested me. These kids in a city like Seattle - and not New York City or Los Angeles- pushed out on the streets. Nobody to take care of them, their families don't care. I think it is fascinating to get into these worlds and learn why.

But photography can't change anything or everything. Sometimes, some good can result from a story. Like I just did a story for Life, on this cancer camp and they managed to raise a tremendous amount of money, close to a million dollars, because of the story. So that's a great feeling because you believe in the good work the camp is doing and the kids are so great. It would be nice if some billionaire in India fixed up a whole street and decided to look after everyone in that community, but it doesn't happen. It doesn't even happen in America. While they did manage to raise some money for shelters for the runaway kids in Seattle, I doubt there has been a significant change in the situation. But I'm not a missionary, I'm a photographer.

I think, as a photographer, there's tremendous moral responsibility; I think you can't lie. But you have to be careful because cameras can often twist and distort situations. You can juxtapose anything, not only in taking the picture, but in the way the story is laid out. As I said, about this aspect (layout, production), there's little you can do. You can't hold onto a story forever and never let it be published. So I don't know what the solution is to that.

Being in New York which is pretty much a centre for many of the best photographers, do you windup spending time, when you are not working, with them? Also, whose work do you feel you may have been influenced by?

Actually, I don't really have many close friends who are photographers. My friendships are more open and varied and outside the world of photography. Gwen Thomas is a close friend of mine. She's an art photographer who photographs and then paints her prints - completely different work from me. She's a wonderful friend and has been for years. But it's more to do with friendship than photography. Then there's Michael Abramson, a photojournalist, but again a friendship not based on talking shop. Jehangir Gazdar in India is a great friend, a wonderful guy. Candice Bergen is an old friend, because I know her from school and Rusty Unger, who is now a writer. I just feel one shouldn't lock oneself in too tight a photography group.

I think one is always influenced by everyone and everything, in a way. What's important is not to be too influenced by someone because you certainly don't want your work to be like someone else's. I think the worst thing is for someone to say that your pictures look like so and so's. So I try to keep very open about it. But at the same time, I want to be open in the other direction. One must look at all the work that is being done so that one can learn from it and be inspired by it.

How do you support your primary interest in photography - social documentary photography?

To support my habit of working in documentary photography, I work in films. It's commonly referred to as 'special photography'. Special photography is to me what annual reports are to others working in this genre. Because money in magazine photography is very, very little. 'Special photography' means a company hires me from five to three weeks to do stills which are then used in ads. So I'll do portraits of actors and actresses, sort of like building a studio on the sets.

Do you operate through an agency?

I used to work through Magnum, which is an excellent agency. I have tremendous respect both for the photographers who work out of there and the people who run it. But I decided a few years ago, that I was going to see what it would be like to work in a more independent way. I'm now in the midst of an experiment. I have my pictures in a photo library, Archive. After something is done, the pictures go there and they sell it. But all the work is mine, independently, and there's no agency fee involved. I have an agent who gets me film work, but that's separate.

Do you use the Leica M4 and Nikons mainly as a photojournalist?

I have been using the Leica and Nikons all these years. I've now also started using a Rollei 2 1/4 - that's something new. I started using it for portraits two years ago. That changed the way I work and it was terrific to learn something new. I use a lot more strobe now than I did before. Since I prefer to be closer to my subjects, I prefer wider lenses, generally between 24 mm and 35 mm, sometimes a 50 mm lens for portraits. I shoot a lot, sometimes too much. I believe a contact sheet is like a sketch pad - you sketch different frames and then you select what you want.

On a project, do you prefer to work towards an exhibition or a book form?

I would always work towards a book. I work on photos hoping they will find their way into a book form. Finding publishers is becoming increasingly difficult in my kind of work because publishers look for more conventional images. Take the Mother Teresa project. It's hard to find a publisher because everyone wants stereotypical, romantic, conventional images of her.

Ketaki Sheth was on the staff of Imprint. She is now a freelance photographer and writer.