Mary Ellen Mark

For as long as I have been interested in photography, I have always been fascinated by photojournalism. The pictures that are seen all over the world on the cover of newspapers are the ones specifically made to elicit deliberate reactions from viewers: emotional reactions, a gut reactions, or prompts to think more. Each time that I look at the cover of the New York Times, or Time magazine, I glance to the bottom right corner to see whose name is typed out in small gray letters with their agency following.

The first time I saw my own name was in my school’s newspaper. Mine wasn’t an exciting picture; it was of a garden that had recently opened on the busiest street near campus. Taking it hadn’t been very exciting either; I had quickly snapped the pictures in a span of two minutes, and continued walking to class. The picture wasn’t even on the first page. And still, the feeling of seeing my name printed underneath that boring picture felt so good.

I have become mesmerized by the work of Mary Ellen Mark, who recently passed away. Here in the library, I’ve been lucky enough to have access to a number of books containing her work. Looking through them, it’s clear how moving her work is.


Life in Korem Camp, a famine relief camp 250 miles north of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Commissioned for Life/Time. Mary Ellen Mark.

From one photo to the next, whether in India, Ethiopia, or the United States, there is such compassion and empathy in her photographs, which I find rare when looking through a newspaper. Sometimes, I do feel uncomfortable with viewing a photojournalists work, because I sense that there is a lack of connection. Or, more than that, there is a lack of self-reflection based on the events that the photographer has experienced. In my limited practice as a photographer, the process can be intensely self reflective. Not only does being photographed affect the subject, it also affects the photographer profoundly. I feel as vulnerable, entering someone else’s space with a technical device, intent on capturing what I find beautiful and moving, and then leaving.


There is a strange disconnect here. While there is a power dynamic that is built with the camera, there is potential for equal vulnerability on either side of the camera. (I say potential here because that is not always what happens). Mary Ellen Mark’s works is an exceptional example of photography that is made more evocative for the viewer because the photographer was affected by the work as well.

 Streetwise, Mary Ellen Mark. 1983.

Mary Ellen Mark’s work didn’t reach the front page of the newspaper, because it takes more than a split second to realize what is happening, what the cultural context of the photograph is, and why it is important. My thinking is, the importance of the work should shadow the importance of being first page on a newspaper. Being on the first page of a newspaper is a fine goal to have,  but it may not be mine anymore.

The personal value and connection that a photographer has to a single photograph, along with context, can be more important than having the most incredible image.  Both are essential to the art of photography, but each will not affect the photographer in the same way. A photographer should care more about the subject than the photographs produced. If a photographer cares, and has the adequate technical skill, the photograph will speak for itself in intensity and emotion.

Sadie Hope-Gund is the Library Intern at ICP this summer for two months. She just completed her first year at Brown University, and is looking forward to writing for Monsters & Madonnas more in the coming weeks!

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