I first encountered Mary Ellen Mark through a photograph she did for Life, of one of Mother Teresa’s disciples walking through a shantytown in white robes, accompanied by a gaggle of geese. It’s such an intimate image, yet there’s nothing light about it. It’s of this incredibly noble person, humbly doing the good work. That’s how I felt about Mary Ellen. She recognized a common humanity in everyone she shot, from a living saint in Calcutta to street kids in Seattle. There was neither pity nor judgment in her images, nothing easy or sentimental, just cool-eyed empathy for a world that was out of balance. Her shots are like movie stills, layered with narrative. Most important, they’re honest and beautiful.
That’s why people on the margins—and the notoriously difficult Brando, on the set of Apocalypse Now—let her in. She was disarming because she was open, genuinely interested, and tough. Even when she became sick, she kept going. And she respected how her subjects, even kids, presented themselves. Tiny, the 13-year-old prostitute from Seattle, let Mary Ellen catch her at her most vulnerable because she knew Mary Ellen wouldn’t abuse that. Like Cartier-Bresson, she captured the decisive moment, but it was the decisive emotional moment.
Mary Ellen understood people don’t exist in a vacuum, frozen in time. She chronicled their evolution: Her commitment to Tiny lasted 30 years. She’d go back, flesh out the complexities, and get to people’s truth, even if they weren’t well-known or even necessarily worth knowing, by society’s standards. They were important to her, and she made them important to us. She said that, as a documentarian, “you have to accept that you’re stealing something.” In exchange, she wanted to honor the relationship by presenting it as straightforwardly as possible. Her mantra was “Be truthful.” It was her greatest asset. She was talented, tough, the queen bee, but she was also, quite literally, a straight shooter.—As told to Gabriella Fuller
Mary Ellen Mark’s latest collection, Tiny: Streetwise Revisited, will be published in October by Aperture.
Photo Credit: © Mary Ellen Mark