Mary Ellen Mark: On Poignant Portraits and Portrayals

If you have a growing interest in portrait photography with a documentary goal, the work of Mary Ellen Mark is definitely among those that you should study.

We’re sure that a fair number of photographers out there are interested in street portraiture and documentary portraits, so it’s only proper for us to bring some inspiration from Mary Ellen Mark. The late American photojournalist remains one of the most important and prolific documentary photographers of her time, best known for her poignant portraiture. During her 2013 lecture at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design of the University of Michigan, Marks presented some of her most unforgettable projects shot in India, Mexico, across the US, and Iceland and talked about the stories behind them.

“Poverty is actually quite hard to photograph because it can be such a cliche. You have to try and find a way of looking at it that hasn’t been looked at in a million times before. It’s challenging.”

Some of her most poignant works demonstrate the interesting relationship between man and beast, as she described in the photos she shot of street performers and circus people working with animals. There are many great examples that she included in her slideshow, but the best is definitely her legendary 1989 shot of animal trainer Ram Prakash Singh with Shyama the elephant. Interestingly, Mark noted that some of the topics and people she documented was a “young girl and young woman’s world.” Among these are the prostitutes and circus people she documented in India, which she said she probably wouldn’t have access to if she were a man.

“I think one of the advantages to being a woman is that you can have a certain kind of access. You can knock on a door and walk in… I could just go in the tents when the children were napping — all females. And it was okay. It might have been harder for a male to do that.”

It’s also interesting to hear an influential street photographer’s view on photographing poverty, which is now considered a big no-no, unless you can find a way to leave some dignity to your subjects. Even in the 1990s, when she did a story on rural and urban poverty for Fortune Magazine, she thought it was a challenging topic that must be traversed carefully. “Poverty is actually quite hard to photograph because it can be such a cliche. You have to try and find a way of looking at it that hasn’t been looked at in a million times before. It’s challenging.”

As Mark revealed throughout the almost hour-long talk, she worked also on many difficult and emotional topics (like dying children, street kids, problem children, and mental asylums), but also some light-hearted ones (like twins and proms). An important thing to note about her work is that it took Mark years upon years of interacting and living with the people she was photographing. So if you want to do a documentary project, you really have to be ready to work hard and immerse yourself in the lives of your subjects. Don’t forget to check out Mary Ellen Mark’s website to learn more about her poignant work.

Screenshot taken from the video.