January 1992

New York‑More than 100 people convened at the International Center of Photography's Midtown gallery to listen to a panel discussion with photographer Mary Ellen Mark, Fortune picture editor Michele McNally and author and International Museum of Photography curator Marianne Fulton. The three each had their comments about magazine photography and assignments, but the focus of the night was on Mary Ellen Mark. A retrospective of her work was on view at ICP/Midtown until November 17.

Mark, who has had six books of her work published, said, "I think of magazine assignments as grants, a way of allowing me to do my work." She estimates that between 70 and 80 percent of her work has come out of magazine assignments, and in recent years her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Fortune and Vogue. "I pick and choose carefully the kind of editorial assignment I'll do, and if I think it will add to a body of work, I'll take it."

Mark cited as examples of such assignments two pieces she recently did for Fortune‑one on urban poverty, the other on rural poverty. "Those assignments allowed me to photograph something I was really interested in. Many prints from those assignments are in my show."

When Fulton asked McNally why she chose Mark for the assignment, McNally responded, "Her pictures are evocative and memorable. When you turn the page of Fortune and see a portrait of a child who lives in utter poverty amidst portraits of businessmen, it's doubly horrible and doubly effective in heightening the reader's awareness. Mary Ellen's prints in black and white, are even more outstanding because Fortune is such a slick magazine."

Mark, however, has no illusions about the benefit photography can offer its subjects. When asked whether photos ever change people's lives, Mark replied, "seldom." She talked about a girl whose photo appeared in her book Streetwise, who was offered opportunities to start a film career after the Streetwise documentary was released. "She couldn't change her life, she couldn't get off the street," said Mark, adding, "It's so pretentious to think that, by walking in and taking someone's picture, you can change a life."

Unlike many photographers who spend time with subjects before pulling out equipment, Mark believes in approaching subjects with a camera in hand from the first meeting. "Either you make friends and suddenly take out your cameras, or you tell them from the beginning what you're there for and let them decide yes or no," she said. "The bottom line is: You're there to take pictures, to tell the story of someone's life, not to be his or her best friend."

Later in the discussion, Mark said that in the course of spending time with her subjects, she has formed attachments that have made saying goodbye difficult. "It's hard to deal with. I have a lot of lines," she said, touching her face. "I carry this guilt because people have allowed you to make incredible images of them, and there's no way you can ever repay them. Their lives are probably going to stay the same or get worse… it's a lot to deal with," she said.

"People always ask me about money," she said. She does not believe in promising any sort of payment to her subjects. However, when the magazine she's working for supports it, "without saying anything or promising anything, at the very end we go and buy food for people or if they need something like a hot plate, we'll buy them that, as a gift."

A member of the audience asked Mark if she ever directs her shots or poses her subjects. While saying that she is careful not to manipulate the photo "in a way that makes things look untrue," she also said, "Certainly, when I'm working in 2 1/4 and I've lit [the shot], I'll ask people to stand in places I've lit." To more fully explain her views on "manipulation," she showed a photo of a little boy holding a cat who bears a remarkable resemblance to him. "He brought the cat to show it to me," she said, "but obviously I had to stop him on the porch to get the shot. The photograph was really the boy's idea, but I did what I needed to do to make it."

Mark said that when she is working on a story she does not try to make a photo essay. "I like strong single images, so I try to think when I'm on an assignment that every image has to be able to stand on its own. I don't believe in the how‑to picture."

While Mark is known for her work documenting the lives of the poor, Fulton pointed out that she also photographs celebrities and has a large body of work made up of movie star portraits and movie production stills. Mark replied that she prefers photographing people whose lives she can enter and learn something about. "My curiosity is about people whose lives aren't known," said Mark. "They haven't been overphotographed and I like to feel I'm telling their story."

Fulton said she finds that several themes recur in Mark's work, one of the most prominent being confinement. Admitting she is claustrophobic, Mark explained her interest. "I think the worst thing in the world would be to be confined in any way. When I shot Ward 81, I realized that mental illness involves double confinement, being locked in your own body and in a physical space. That to me is the ultimate degradation and I tried to understand what it would be like." Her involvement in the subject extended to living in her own cell in the ward; normally, she says, she stays in a hotel while on assignment to maintain some privacy at the end of a day of shooting.

Mark spoke of her interest in finding common rituals in various cultures, exploring "universal threads" and "things that cross cultures." Of her book Falkland Road, in which she documented prostitutes in India, she said, "That book wasn't about Indian women, it was about women. It was about what it feels like for a woman to sell her body."

Among her current projects, Mark mentioned that in the future she hopes to do a film based on photographs she's taken of an Indian circus. "Hopefully," she said, "we'll get independent money and we'll go back to India next year and make this new film."