An Interview with Mary Ellen Mark (1990)



“When it’s cropped I think, ‘God, it just doesn’t make sense. The picture’s no good any more. It’s not what I shot.'”


Interview by Constance Sullivan

CS: You’ve been described as both a documentary photographer and a photojournalist. Do you make a distinction between the two?

MARY ELLEN MARK: I have never known the difference between one and the other. To me a documentary photographer and a photojournalist are pretty much the same thing. If I have to make a distinction, I’m more a documentary photographer–I don’t think of myself as a photo-essayist in the sense that I always consider a magazine layout when I’m working. To be honest with you, I always try to think of the specific pictures. What’s important to me is to make strong, individual pictures. When I look at a documentary photographer or photojournalist whose work I really love–somebody like Eugene Smith–it’s because the images are single images. I think of his great picture stories as stories where the images really stood by themselves. In Life’s “Country Doctor,” for example, you remember each image: the doctor drinking the cup of coffee, the child getting his head sewn. They weren’t only linking images–each one was strong, and each can stand alone. I think in great magazine or newspaper photography every picture can stand on its own; it doesn’t need the other pictures to support it, to tell a story.

CS: Why did you choose to do photojournalism?

MARY ELLEN MARK: It wasn’t a choice, it was just what I wanted to do. When I became interested in photography, which was in 1963, I didn’t think: “Should I do still-life photography? Should I be a landscape photographer? Or should I do commercial work?” I knew that I wanted to photograph people and I wanted to do documentary essays on social situations.

CS: What was the first story that you did that made you feel you were a professional photographer?

MARY ELLEN MARK: There were a couple, but my first really big break was from Pat Carbine at Look magazine, and it’s interesting that it was from a woman. At that time there weren’t so many women in this field, and she met me and she trusted me, and gave me two assignments. One was photographing on the set of Satyricon–I got to photograph Fellini, which was very interesting. The film was visually amazing, and he was great. After that I suggested another story, on drug addicts and junkies in London. It’s funny because I shot it predominantly in black and white, but on the last day I shot a couple of rolls of color, and they ended up using the color pictures. Anyway it was a very solid story–I still count some of my black-and-white pictures taken on this assignment as being strong statements about drug addiction.

CS: How do your assignments come to you? Do you ever go to an editor or an art director with your own ideas for stories, or do they usually call you and commission you to do a piece?

MARY ELLEN MARK: I think it works both ways. I’d say it is about fifty-fifty. The story on the junkies in London was my idea, but Fellini was Look’s idea. I very much wanted to go to Ethiopia, but the idea for the assignment was John Loengard’s at Life. He gave me the opportunity to go there. “The Prostitutes of Bombay” was my idea. It varies but I’m still constantly working on ideas. I even hire people to research ideas for me, and I’m always looking for specific things that I want to do. There are themes that are visually interesting to me. I don’t want to do the kind of photo essay anymore that isn’t going to bring me images that add to my work as a whole. That’s always something I have in the back of my mind; I’ve always tried to do that, and now even more so. I want to make the magazine work I do, the documentary work I do, add up to something. At the end of my life I want to look back at what I’ve done and say, “This hasn’t been for nothing.” I don’t want my work to be empty; I want the magazine work to help bring about a body of work. I consider my longer documentary magazine assignments as grants that allow me to do the work I care about. Now it’s harder. Magazines don’t necessarily want those kinds of stories any more. So it is very difficult.

CS: How much control does an assignment editor or art director exercise over what you do?

MARY ELLEN MARK: There are two stages. There’s the photo editor, who usually gives you the assignment, and the art director, who designs the layout. A good photo editor will edit the take with you; he will trust your editing and you’ll have a positive working relationship. But then when you get to the design stage, you have no control. I don’t know of any photographer who has control over the design, and the way a layout is done can really change the effect of the photographs. It’s difficult, and sometimes upsetting, but I’ve learned to accept it.

CS: Why do you think that photographers of your caliber and reputation have so little control over this? Is a designer in effect radically changing what you’re saying?

MARY ELLEN MARK: I hate it when people crop photographs. Whenever I’m teaching a workshop or working with students I always say, “You must crop in your camera, not afterwards.” I’ve always been really careful when I make a frame–I’m not saying every frame I do is perfect, but if I select a frame for a magazine, I’m picking it because it’s a good picture. When it’s cropped I think, “God, it just doesn’t make sense. The picture’s no good any more. It’s not what I shot.” But photographers have never had control over layout with magazines–not even Eugene Smith, and this made him very unhappy.

But in the end I feel I always have the photograph, and if it’s a good photograph, one day it will be published uncropped. That’s important to me. There have been some layouts that I’ve really been pleased with, and I’m always thrilled when that happens. I like clean and simple layouts. I think that’s what really works.







“No, I don’t think you’re ever an objective observer. By making a frame you’re being selective, then you edit the pictures you want published and you’re being selective again.”


CS: Do the editors or the art directors who assign you the story ever tell you how you should shoot it or what you should emphasize?

MARY ELLEN MARK: It’s very unusual, but I’d hate it if an editor told me how to shoot a story because then I’d feel like an illustrator. I want to have the freedom to go out and shoot what I see and interpret it my own way. But it’s very inspiring and useful to discuss a story with a photo editor before you start to shoot. A great photo editor is an ally and can have wonderful ideas that will help you with your story. Peter Howe at Life, for example, is very helpful and supportive, as are several others. I usually have a very positive relationship with photo editors–they want the pictures to be great too.

CS: What are your favorite kinds of assignments? What are the subjects and people and places that you most like?

MARY ELLEN MARK: The kind of assignment I like is one that has the possibility of a visual impact that interests me. That’s a hard question, because what I consider visual can be abstract. Why don’t I talk about different kinds of pictures that are in this book? Ethiopia was really important to me because I felt that those photographs should have a lasting visual impression. It was more than a news event, it really symbolized something horrific that was happening to mankind in our century, and could happen again and again–and I felt people needed to see those images. The opposite emotional extreme would be something like the street performers in India, which have a sense of whimsy and craziness, a magic and mystery that I thought could be beautiful. It says something about my fascination with and love of India.

CS: When do you use 2 1/4-inch format and when do you use 35mm?

MARY ELLEN MARK: If a subject has strong, active content I use 35mm. If I have to create the content and atmosphere, as in portraiture, I use 2 1/4. It’s a different sort of reality. I have been using a 2 1/4 camera for seven years, and it has enhanced my way of seeing. In fact, it has made me a better 35mm photographer.

CS: How do you approach photographing an assignment?

MARY ELLEN MARK: It depends upon the story. With Ethiopia I just went and took the photographs because they were there–they existed, and it was an incredible experience. I always prefer to spend a long period of time in one place. In Ethiopia I chose just to go to the same camp rather than to travel here and there. I made two trips to one camp, so I knew the people there. That way when you see someone you want to photograph you can think about it and take pictures you feel are important. You make more of a personal investment that way. The stories from the Philippines and Zimbabwe were classic photojournalism assignments for the London Sunday Times Magazine. I spent several weeks in both countries, and as you spend time you get clues as to how your story is going to evolve. One thing leads to another. Before I begin a project, I also do a lot of research.

CS: But in a situation like Ethiopia, or the home for the dying in Calcutta, in circumstances that would be overwhelming in a lot of ways–visually, emotionally, psychologically–how do you know where to start?

MARY ELLEN MARK: You just go in and start. It is overwhelming, and the older I get the more overwhelming it becomes. That’s why my current work on the Indian circus is a relief because it’s not about confronting something that is so terribly emotionally overwhelming and depressing, but is more about the magic and whimsy of the circus, and my love for India. I immediately try to make a relationship with the people I’m photographing, so I’m not an anonymous person to them. Within the relief camp of Korem in Ethiopia, I photographed the same places every day. There were maybe forty different tents where people were living and dying; I confined my photographs to three tents. I’d go back every day and see the same people. This kind of personal contact in some ways makes it easier for me to deal emotionally with difficult subjects–but it also makes it harder for me to leave. Leaving Ethiopia was especially difficult.

CS: Do you try to be an objective observer in situations you are photographing? Is this possible?

MARY ELLEN MARK: No, I don’t think you’re ever an objective observer. By making a frame you’re being selective, then you edit the pictures you want published and you’re being selective again. You develop a point of view that you want to express. You try to go into a situation with an open mind, but then you form an opinion, and you express it in your photographs. It is very important for a photographer to have a point of view–that contributes to a great photograph.

CS: Your photographs are graphically very simple, very resolved, but they are emotionally very powerful.

MARY ELLEN MARK: What I’m trying to do is to make photographs that are universally understood, whether in China or Russia or America–photographs that cross cultural lines. So if the project is about street performers, it touches those little things and whimsies we’re all interested in–animals and people and anthropomorphic qualities. If it’s about famine in Ethiopia, it’s about the human condition all over the world: it’s about people dying in the streets of New York as much as it’s about Ethiopia. I want my photographs to be about the basic emotions and feelings that we all experience.

CS: Do you consciously develop some sort of narrative in your story? Something with a beginning, middle,and end?

MARY ELLEN MARK: No. I don’t do that. I always think of the single image. One thing I always hope for is that I have a photograph that is so powerful it can open the story, but then I want everything else to be very strong also. So I think about a narrative only in the hope that I will have several pages of individually strong photographs.

CS: But the story does begin to take shape in your mind.

MARY ELLEN MARK: It takes shape, definitely. You’re trying to show all the different aspects of a strong subject, you’re giving your impression of what you see. For example, in Zimbabwe I was hoping to give the impression of what that country was like. It suddenly had a new government. What was it like to be white in Zimbabwe? What was it like to be black in Zimbabwe?






CS: What kind of research do you do before you go off on assignment?

MARY ELLEN MARK: The major research I do is to find contacts who can help me where I’m working. For example, when I photographed the ethnic communities in Sydney, Australia, for National Geographic, I found a woman in Sydney who would help me with my research before I arrived. That way I could spend all my time on location doing photographs rather than researching on a telephone in my hotel room.

CS: How many assistants do you usually take?

MARY ELLEN MARK: It varies. For most of the stories published in this book there were no assistants. I started working with assistants only a few years ago, but they are a great help, and whenever possible I work with one. Sometimes I hire a local person to help, but I prefer to work with the same person over a long period of time. On big commercial assignments–advertising or work for film studios that requires complex lighting set-ups–I use more than one assistant. With 35mm documentary work I work with one person.

CS: What about the issue of shooting in black and white versus color?

MARY ELLEN MARK: I find it very difficult to do both simultaneously. Somebody called me about this upcoming trip to India and asked if I could shoot some color at the same time that I’m using black and white, and I said no. Recently I’ve been doing more black-and-white photography. I prefer it. I think color is much more difficult because it’s technically much less forgiving. Also it’s another element to have to think about: color itself.

CS: You use color when it adds to the emotional content of the picture?

MARY ELLEN MARK: I like color when it heightens the reality of the situation. The color photo essays in this book are successful examples of that. But again I’m the first to admit that it’s much, much more difficult. I shot the photographs of Ethiopia in color negative film because the magazine insisted the story be in color. I wanted to have the latitude of negative film and not to have to think about the more limited range of transparency film. Shooting in color negative allowed me to be a lot freer than if I were shooting transparency film.

CS: How technically proficient are you? Is that important to you?

MARY ELLEN MARK: I’ve learned to become more technically proficient, but I’m not a technical person. I’d say that in the last ten years I’ve learned to be a hundred times more technical than I was. It’s important. If you’re going to work professionally, a certain amount of technique is necessary simply because it helps you to come back with results. Also, great lighting technique can help a photographer make a stronger image, especially in portraiture. Beautiful natural light is the most desirable thing of all, but you can’t always rely on it being there.

The whole nature of what magazines expect has changed. Sometimes, unfortunately, what they seem to want now is a certain slickness. If I were giving advice to young people studying photography who want to work for magazines, I would say that technique is important, because it enables you to have a greater range in your work. In one sense it frees you, and in another it doesn’t: if it’s going to add to what you do and make you more confident, then it frees you, but if it restricts your vision and you think only about technique, not content, it doesn’t.

CS:And you shoot a lot?

MARY ELLEN MARK: I shoot a lot because I try to vary frames. I feel a contact sheet is like a sketchbook, but there’s always one frame that is better. I edit very carefully.

CS: There’s a particular photograph of yours done in Calcutta. It’s of a little blind child, who is sensing someone’s hand. It is tremendously powerful, very moving, because it captures something that has to do with the way you work on the street.

MARY ELLEN MARK: I can tell you exactly how this photograph happened. Again, it is knowing the people that you’re photographing. I knew that little girl well, and I also knew her parents, who were there to adopt her. I spent a lot of time photographing them. So when that happened, when she touched her adopted mother’s hand, I was luckily in the right place to take that photograph. I remember everything when I have taken a picture that is important to me–every little detail. On the contact sheets there are a lot of different sequences. She walked over to her mother, she leaned against her legs, then she touched her hands. It just happened. You learn to anticipate situations. I have done documentary photography for so many years, I have developed a sense of when something is going to happen, and I wait for that moment. That’s when it’s most exciting. I love the 2 1/4 format because its negative resolution is beautiful; but when you’re working in 35mm and things are just quickly unfolding, it’s most incredible in another way.

CS: You never seem to turn away from things most people would turn away from. You’re not afraid to look, not afraid to get right up there.

MARY ELLEN MARK: Recently I was watching a program on Cambodia on television. They showed these war photographs that were just amazing, and I thought, “God, somebody was standing right there taking them!” Think of that incredible photograph by Larry Burrows. He risked his own life many, many times. I’m not risking my life. I photograph people in difficult social situations–people who have difficult lives–but I never feel threatened by the people I photograph. They have a story to be told. I want to tell it, I want to be a voice for the unfamous people. Those are the people who interest me. Whether it’s a guy in Miami Beach who goes to a dance or it’s someone who’s dying in Ethiopia, they’re the unfamous people that I care about. I feel a certain purity in them that’s real, and I want to document their lives.

CS: You photograph people who are dying, people who are suffering from famine, people who live on the edge of society or who are in some way brutalized by society. Do you ever feel that you’re exploiting them?

MARY ELLEN MARK: That’s very difficult to come to terms with. I photograph people who are the victims of society, because I care about them. And I want the people who see my pictures to also care. Sometimes there are things I feel I can’t photograph. It’s a difficult situation to know when you can and when you cannot take a picture. That’s when you ask yourself if you are being exploitative, or if you are photographing something that must be seen. Sometimes when I DON’T photograph something I say, “God, I should have, because it was really important to the story. I should have done it.” And then sometimes when I do take the photograph I worry about stepping over boundaries. I have developed an instinct for how far to go.

CS: How do you think these people perceive you?

MARY ELLEN MARK: Everyone I have photographed is different. You can’t predict how you’re going to be perceived. I just try to be honest with people–and they can make up their own minds about me. I stay in contact with many of the people I photograph for long periods of time. I become involved in their lives.






“When I first started, there were few female photographers, but now, happily, there are many more. I think it’s an advantage. In all other life experiences it’s harder being a woman; but I think for a woman photographer–as a photojournalist particularly–the whole idea of access becomes easier because people are less threatened by a woman.”


CS: Does a project take over your life the way an actor’s life is taken over?

MARY ELLEN MARK: Yes, of course, especially the prostitutes of Bombay, because that story was such an amazing experience. I lived and breathed and dreamt it. It was an incredible time in my life. Each day was like a living soap opera. Their lives were very dramatic.

CS: What about coming back to your everyday life after that?

MARY ELLEN MARK: The separation from that story was very, very difficult, because I thought I would never see many of the women again. Ending a story is always difficult, especially when you have come to know and care about people.

CS: Ethiopia represented an extreme in terms of human experiences. Do you ever find yourself feelng that you prefer to work at such an extreme level?

MARY ELLEN MARK: Well Ethiopia was extreme, but in a sense a prostitute’s life isn’t–it’s very simple, day-to-day survival, and you find your extremes within that. It’s not about extremes, it’s about something else. It’s about those social parallels that we all understand, and maybe those parallels are found more often in the extremes.

CS: What’s it like to be away for long periods in places that are really foreign to you, alien to you. Is it lonely? Is it difficult?

MARY ELLEN MARK: The most difficult part is actually preparing for my departure. For example, in two weeks I’m leaving for three months in India, and the idea of everything I have to do before I leave, and also of finally getting through customs with all my film and cameras, is overwhelming. Once I’m there, I’m immersed in my work, and that part is wonderful.

CS: Do you ever feel afraid, that you’re threatened in any way?

MARY ELLEN MARK: Before I go I always think about the worst that’s going to happen. Right now I think I might get stepped on by an elephant, or eaten by a tiger. But then I always come back and it’s all okay.

CS: What are some of the obstacles that you had to overcome in being on assignment–in being in India, in being in Africa.

MARY ELLEN MARK: Well India is not a difficult place for me because I know it. I’m always afraid that I’m not going to get access, I’m always afraid that I’m not going to make great photographs. I go into every story thinking I’m going to fail. I think about that all the time–I think it’s going to be terrible. Every story is like the first I’ve ever done.

CS: Have you ever been in a situation where it’s been a disaster?

MARY ELLEN MARK: Only in the sense that–and I’m not trying to pass the buck–in a couple of stories, writers sold magazines story ideas that didn’t exist. But that does not happen often. Usually you just fight to make your pictures work. There have been times when after a week I’ve called home and said, “God, this is a.failure and I can’t do it. It’s not there.” But somehow I just fight it through and it happens. It’s just a question of finding my access, then making strong photographs.

CSl When you first started there were very few women photographers. Is it easier now?

MARY ELLEN MARK: When I first started, there were few female photographers, but now, happily, there are many more. I think it’s an advantage. In all other life experiences it’s harder being a woman; but I think for a woman photographer–as a photojournalist particularly–the whole idea of access becomes easier because people are less threatened by a woman.

CS: You’ve photographed quite a lot in India, and you have returned often over the last twenty years or so. Do you prefer to photograph in exotic places?

MARY ELLEN MARK: I love India, but I loved Russia too. The things that interest me in different cultures are all those things I can find parallels for in my own culture. India and Russia are countries that have a lot of parallels to America. Recently I have been working in America. This is a fascinating country. It’s such a strange place and very visually exciting.

CS: Are you aware of certain themes that you really like and repeat?

MARY ELLEN MARK: Yes. You are who you are, and it’s important to recognize that and to explore those obsessions, rather than think “I have to do something different.” There are several themes that I always come back to, and I hope to continue to explore them again and again.

CS: How do you perceive what’s happening with the magazines today in terms of editorial content?

MARY ELLEN MARK: In terms of the kind of work that I do, which is social-documentary photography, magazines today are at a low point simply because of this huge emphasis, more than ever, on glossy celebrity photographs. But I’m encouraged by Life magazine: when I return from India I will shoot three strong documentary stories for them. I really believe magazines will again publish strong documentary work, because so much of the slick work that is being published now is empty, and because real documentary magazine photography is just so much stronger and more important for the world to see. I am an idealist about social documentary photography.

CS: Are there assignments that you turn down?

MARY ELLEN MARK: I turn down a lot of stories. I want to do only documentary work that is important to me. Commercial work can help support my personal work, and so I’ll accept most reasonable commercial assignments. But I want my documentary work to always be something special, something that I love.

CS: Do you think it’s possible to make a living just doing documentary photography without taking commercial work and without doing advertising?

MARY ELLEN MARK: I think it’s not. I get very few advertising assignments, but I did photograph a campaign last year for Good Housekeeping, and it supported me. If you want to be a hard-news photographer out there shooting every event you can probably support yourself, but you’ve got to be really willing to run very hard to do it. I don’t want to do that–it’s really SO different from what my work is about. It is much more difficult to support yourself doing documentary magazine work, because first of all, those assignments don’t come along that often. They come along less and less now, simply because of a new emphasis on celebrity portraiture. And too, the work is so intense, difficult, and exhausting that if you did it day after day to support yourself you would either collapse or burn out.

CS: The kind of schedule you have, the kind of life you lead–it’s pretty hectic, isn’t it?

MARY ELLEN MARK: Yes. When I look at my room, with clothes all over to be packed for a three-month trip, and think of all I have to do, yes, sure it is hectic. And then I think of how important this work is to me. Kodak has sponsored my six-month project on the Indian circus. It is something I have wanted to photograph for twenty years, so a hectic schedule is worth it if I can make the photographs I want to make.

CS: What is a typical three-month travel schedule?

MARY ELLEN MARK: I hired Daijanita Singh, an Indian photographer, to research for me. She scheduled the entire first part of the trip, locating nine different circuses. Now I’m returning to photograph nine more. I’ll start to travel in late October, and I’ll spend a week or more visiting each circus, and then in late November I’ll go to Japan because Eikoh Hosoe organized a show for fifty photographers from around the world and they invited me to come. After spending five days in Japan I’ll return to India and continue to work. To help finance this trip I will do a series of black-and-white pictures in Jodhpur for Travel and Leisure magazine.

CS: So would you advise someone who’s thinking about doing documentary photography that traveling is really a part of this life?

MARY ELLEN MARK: In the work I do travel is really essential because assignments are all over the country and all over the world. You have to be willing to allow yourself to have that kind of freedom. It has a strong effect on one’s personal life. Sometimes I look at people who have a centered life, who really spend time at home. Sometimes I envy their lives, but then if I had to do it all over again I would definitely make the same choice again, because I love documentary photography, but also because through my photography I have met so many special people and experienced so many lives. For example, if I were not a documentary photographer I would have never known the women of Falkland Road or Tiny, the young girl in Streetwise.

CS: You’re working now on a major retrospective for George Eastman House, which will be accompanied by a book. Do you think the attitude toward photojournalism and documentary photography has changed on the part of the museum and art world establishment?

MARY ELLEN MARK: Yes, I think that more and more the museums and galleries are giving documentary photography the recognition it deserves.

CS: When you talk to students who are seriously thinking about making photography their life, what are two or three really key things you say to them?

MARY ELLEN MARK: I think the most important thing is to do work that you believe in so that when you are seventy-five or eighty years old you can look back at what you’ve done and say, “I’ve accomplished something.” If you are interested in photography because you love it and are obsessed with it, you must be self-motivated, a perfectionist, and relentless.



(Copyright © 1990 by Smithsonian Institution and Constance Sullivan)

Posted in Documentary Photography, Interviews - All, Masters and tagged , , , , .