Mary Ellen Mark did the kind of work many of us are too cowardly to do. The kind of work that, perhaps, was true to self but not obviously marketable. She was, without question, a crusader of social photography and documentary through it, encompassing the emotions of the human condition regardless of her subject’s propensity to be incendiary. Poverty? Check. Religion? Of course. Mental illness and prostitution? Undoubtedly. She was brilliant, and her passing last year was our significant loss.
It wasn’t uncommon to look through a book or collection of Mark’s images and see the beautiful, difficult, and uncomfortable all at once, as evidenced by seeing an image of Mother Theresa caring for someone knocking on death’s door, which encompassed all three emotions. Similarly, as it was a recurring motif within her body of work, another image of hers evoked those same emotions and possibly more memorable and jarringly.
It was a picture taken in North Carolina 1990, of two young girls in a small wading pool, Amanda and her cousin Amy. Amy, sits half-submerged, appearing overweight for her age, but innocent. In sharp contrast and closer to the camera, Amanda steals the scene and the show, and her image has gone on to create much conversation on everything from western health, the disappearance of innocence from youth and adolescence, and more. Standing in a frilly bathing suit, donning long nails and significant makeup, she smokes a cigarette in a manner of someone much her senior and holding a gaze too old and knowing for her 9-year-old self. She possesses the juxtaposition of youth and adult sexuality, and even corruption. It remains today one of the most memorable of Mark’s subjects, and some 25 years later, NPR found her.
Last year, just after Mark’s passing at age 75, NPR caught up with Amanda Marie Ellison, then 34, and spoke to her about the image, her life, and her memory of Mark. Interestingly, Amanda had forgotten Mark’s name and the image itself until she ‘rediscovered’ it when someone posted it to Facebook. She recalls the floors of emotion she felt upon seeing it again, what her hard life was like then, what it’s like now, and what she thinks Mary Ellen Mark would think of her at this point in her life. In an interview with Vogue Magazine, Mark even spoke of Amanda,
She’s smoking a cigarette, she’s on the edge, she’s my favourite. She was so bad she was wonderful, she had a really vulgar mouth, she was brilliant,” says Mark, who segues into “I was something of a problem kid. I was emotional, wild, rebellious at school. I’m very touched by kids who don’t have advantages; they are much more interesting than kids who have everything. They have a lot of passion and emotion, such a strong will.
The audio is a short listen of about 4 minutes, but it’s always wonderful to hear from the subjects of iconic images, as they speak the thousand words inherit to every photograph, adding new dimension from insight. Sometimes, if not most often, we behind the lens don’t understand how much of an impact we and our work can have on our subjects, and hearing about it could give new appreciation for what we do, and hopefully energize us to continue and do better. Find the audio below, and further down, an hour lecture given by Mark called Portrait & Portrayals, giving lovely insight into her mind, and imparts wisdom from experience.