The Women on Ward 81
March, 1978

‘Here I am’

Stimulated by a conversation in the office, on photography, and fortified by a glimpse at Susan Son tag’s fresh, recent musings on the subject, we called on Mary Ellen Mark, '62 FA, '64 ASC, one frigid Saturday morning not long ago. Ms. Mark, a professional photographer of some distinction, lives in Manhattan, in the section south of Houston Street that is known as SoHo. Her large loft apartment has nearly a dozen giant windows and is a casual but tasteful blend of wicker, glass, chrome, velour, brick, hardwood, greenery, small and even tiny oriental rugs, and lots of artifacts, including a magnificent pair of what look to be deer, seated, and sculpted out of wood that is now well worn.

What brought us to SOHO was a visit we had made a few days earlier to Castelli Graphics, an uptown set of rooms, two of which were being used to display a number of Ms. Mark's photographs. And what had brought us to Castelli was a pair of remarkably complimentary notices the exhibit had received the week before in both Time and Newsweek. (A critic writing in The Village Voice felt differently.)

All the fuss was caused by something called "Ward 81," a project Ms. Mark undertook some time back with a writer named Karen Folger Jacobs. Together, they spent nearly six weeks living on the security ward of a mental institution in Oregon, taking, respectively, pictures and notes. What Ms. Mark saw and what Ms. Jacobs heard will, with the permission of patients and their relatives, become a book, to be published this fall. The photographic essay on pages 22-25 comes from Ms. Mark's half of the project, as did the Castelli exhibition.

Soon after Ms. Mark got off the telephone (which she was on when we arrived and was forced to get back on, repeatedly, throughout the interview), we asked why she did it, why it was important to take pictures of mental patients. "For me," she replied, "it was important because it was something I wanted to photograph. I felt it hadn't really been photographed in a way dealing with its reality and its relationship to us and how close these people are to us, how thin the line is-that hadn't been dealt with so much before. And I believe in opening doors that are supposed to be closed; I think that the situation in a mental hospital should be changed, but I don't think it's changed by showing the brutality in a hospital. But I think just by having a real sincere interest and sympathy and understanding for the people and a connection: people can relate to these women in a real way-then there's going to be more of a chance for change.

"Although," she said with some emphasis, "it's very pretentious to think that your pictures are going to change the world-because they're not. I'm just saying that maybe some people will be moved by it, and, if that's the case, then it's good."

One of the reviewers of her show had pointed out that the definition of madness changes depending on where and when we are; how, we asked, does she view madness. "I almost hate the word madness," she replied. "I always feel that when I look at these people and I think of them as 'mad,' it sort of means that they're lepers or they're this or that, because there's been such a previous stereotype put on what madness is supposed to be-it has a bad connotation. They're sick, some of them. And it's very difficult to find what it is-it is different in everybody, and we all have touches of it. Which is one of the things that I wanted the pictures to say. But we control it, maybe, more, and we also have more masks to put over our faces. We're able to protect ourselves in ways that these women aren't."

Well, what about the vulnerability of those who can't protect themselves as well, we wondered aloud. "I just tried by the way I approached it," said Ms. Mark, getting the point, "not to be exploitative. 1 don't want to exploit people's misery. What this project means to me is, in a way, reaching inward and reaching outward. Do you know what 1 mean? It's me reaching inward just to try and feel and touch these women. And them reaching outwards to try and tell the people that are going to see the pictures: 'Here I am.' And that's what I think a lot about when I photograph. -It's not only me reaching inwards, but I think about the effect that that person is going to have."

We asked how she would characterize her own work. "It's different, depending on the situation," she observed, adding that she is interested in people and the conflicts they are caught in-"the good breaks and the bad breaks that we all get in this world, and the difference between the people that get the good breaks and the ones that get the bad breaks."

Then we asked what seemed to be a question with an easy answer: why does she like photography.

"Sometimes," Ms. Mark began, "I hate photography. I don't always like it. Let's see: why do I like photography? I like it when I'm doing something that's fascinating. I like it because it's opened me up, it's changed my life, it's educated me. Because when it's interesting, it's fascinating. Because it breaks my heart. Because it makes me hate myself-or love myself. Or hate people-or love them. Because it brings out all the emotions and fears and everything about me. It's both made my life fantastic and ruined my life. It's done everything."

"It's made you human?" we felt inclined to ask.

"It's made me human," Ms. Marks agreed, adding, "it's made me also inhuman. It's done everything-all the extremes. I'm very caught up between loving and hating it. When I first started it, I used to talk with so much passion and emotion about how I loved it. And now" she laughs softly-"it's different. I thought it would be easier in after more than 10 years-I've been working at it since 1963 [her first job for pay was for The Pennsylvania Gazette}. But it's much harder, and I have much more mixed feelings about it."

We soon wound up the conversation, wished her well on the journey she was to begin in a few days (to Bombay, on assignment), kissed her on the cheek, and walked out into the cold city street.


Mary Ellen Mark facing the lens
By Candice Bergen

The women on Ward 81
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark



I once heard a story about two women in a small town in Czechoslovakia. At the end of World War II, as victory drew near and the Germans were forced to flee before the Russian advance, each woman took to the streets in euphoria and attacked the retreating German tanks, yelling abuse and throwing stones. The Germans fired on the first woman and killed her instantly. The second woman, for reasons unknown, was ignored by the fleeing army. Screaming hysterically, she was led away by her compatriots and taken to a mental institution where the doctors finally managed to pacify her. The woman who had been killed became a hero. Her photograph made the front pages of the newspapers. Her name appeared later in schoolbooks. A street was named after her. The woman who had been ignored spent five years in a mental institution. As far as I know, no one ever bothered to photograph her.


Mary Ellen Mark, '62 FA, '64 ASC, is a professional photographer associated with the Magnum agency. These photographs of patients in an Oregon mental hospital are from a book to be published next fall with Karen Folger Jacobs, a writer. Milos Forman directed the film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." For more about Ms. Mark, see page 2.