From circus performers in India to street kids in Seattle, Mary Ellen Mark photographs people on the fringes of society — the "unfamous," as she calls them — to portray aspects of the world that many people never confront. She ultimately aims to show the common threads of humanity by photographing people of varying backgrounds.
After earning a bachelor's degree in painting and art history and a master's in photojournalism, Mark explored a career in documentary photography by traveling through Turkey on a Fulbright scholarship in 1965. Now based in New York City, she has since published fourteen books of her photography, ranging from photos of Mother Teresa's charity work in Calcutta to portraits of twins, her most recent project. Mark has also worked with hundreds of famous icons and public figures including actor Johnny Depp, poet Maya Angelou, politician Al Gore, comedian Chris Rock, feminist Gloria Steinem and the late singer Johnny Cash.
Though she works extensively with celebrities, Mark prefers photographing everyday individuals who struggle in everyday life. "These are the people whose lives I think are worth reporting about and who are more interesting … than movie stars," she says.
Mark's images blur the boundaries between commercial, documentary and fine art photography. One of her most recognizable photographs, The Damm Family in Their Car, was taken for LIFE magazine to illustrate a story about poverty. While the image was shot for commercial use, she captured hardship in the style of Depression era documentary photographers to depict the family. But Mark believes that a great picture is a great picture, no matter what style of photography it reflects.
Mark often uses commercial projects to work on personal interests. While on assignment for a story about violent youth, she explored her fascination with kids who struggle to fit into an adult world. Mark focuses her lens on children's innocence — or lack of innocence, as the case may be — to create provocative images, such as Amanda and Her Cousin Amy. When leaving the girl's house after a full day of shooting, Mark saw the young rebel smoking a cigarette in the wading pool as her mother watched. The girl defiantly blew smoke into the camera as Mark captured the moment.
Some of Mark's subjects engage in illegal activities such as prostitution and drug use. Understandably, they may have an aversion to being photographed. In order to gain their trust, Mark spends extra time getting to know them and shows a great deal of empathy for their situation. For her project Falkland Road, a book of documentary photography about the lives of prostitutes in Bombay, Mark spent three months building relationships with the young women before bringing her camera into the scene. Subjects give part of their soul to the photographer, Mark says. Because of this dynamic, she treats every situation with compassion.
Although once shy around others, Mark learned that she must exude confidence to create powerful photographs. "It's important for you [the photographer] to feel comfortable," Mark says. "If you feel uncomfortable, your subjects are very much aware of it." The atmosphere she creates allows her subjects to show raw emotions — pain, defiance, excitement, apathy.
At times Mark is tempted to help her subjects overcome the various obstacles they face. "Sometimes I try and intervene, but you have to realize, as a photographer, you can't expect that your intervening will actually do anything," she says. While Mark recognizes that interceding may not help, some of her photographs have inspired the general public to act. After seeing her pictures of the Damm family, readers of LIFE magazine sent donations totaling more than $9,000.
Seven years after she first photographed the Damm family living in their car outside of a North Hollywood homeless shelter, the mother, Linda, invited Mark to visit her family. She accepted the offer and returned to California to photograph their ongoing battles with homelessness and drug abuse. Mark continues to keep in touch with Linda and claims she is "doing better."
While Mark strives to take photos that are honest instead of images that distort reality, she recognizes that her interpretation also plays a role in her work. She discards hundreds of shots before deciding on one for publication. Even the very act of choosing a subject reflects a photographer's interests and preferences. "Whether you are photographing a jar or an apple or a human being, you're always subjective," she says.
Mark gravitates toward documenting the "unfamous," but she has found it difficult to fund projects that focus on these people. After more than thirty–five years in the business, Mark has learned that magazines often hesitate to publish stories about drug addiction and prostitution. As a result, she struggles at times to finance her independent projects but still refuses to compromise her vision of photography. For Mark, documenting the outcasts of society outweighs the financial burdens of being an artist. "This is not a very commercial choice I've made," Mark says, "but I'm glad I made it."