The Greats: How Mary Ellen Mark Captured the Marginalised with Compassion

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Rising to prominence in the 1960s, Mark’s subjects ranged from the women’s liberation movement to mental health institutions and Indian sex workers. Forming intimate relationships with the people in her images, Mark approached every topic with steadfast commitment and compassion, fundamentally changing how we view marginalised people.

Words by Hudson Brown

Photography by Mary Ellen Mark

Many photographers have set out to capture unseen and left behind groups of people, but few have done so with as much passion and nuance as Mary Ellen Mark. Falling into photography after a brief stint as a draftswoman, Mark discovered looking through the lens engaged her creative side, inspiring her to capture communities that she’d later refer to as the “unfamous.” Across 18 completed photobooks and countless commissions for publications including Life, The New York Times, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, Mark is often described as one of photography’s great obsessives.

Callahan Neighborhood Center, 2002.

Her career began in 1965 when she was selected for a scholarship to Turkey. This allowed Mark to travel extensively across Europe and North America, resulting in the creation of her first photobook, Passport. This early work generated enough interest in her photography to earn her a spot as a unit photographer on a variety of movie sets. Joining the crew on productions like Carnal Knowledge, Catch-22, Tropic of Cancer and Apocalypse Now, Mark constantly remained on the lookout for documentary stories to immerse herself in.

On the set of Taking Off, she learned director Milos Forman was going to shoot One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at an Oregon mental institution. Despite having no budget for a unit photographer, she convinced Forman to let her work for expenses so she could make connections at the hospital. After he agreed, she spent her time during filming getting to know the hospital’s female patients. Eventually, Mark convinced the staff to let her return and create a series. This work became one of Mark’s most acclaimed projects, Ward 81.

Laurie in the Ward 81 tub, 1976.

I’m interested in people who haven’t had as much of a chance.”

No matter the subject Mark focused her attention on, people are found in almost every frame. Her images are distinctly humanist, presenting insight into the lives of vulnerable people with respect and honesty. Mark had many opportunities to document the lives of the rich and famous throughout her career, but chose to focus her creative energy on the lives of those who never saw the limelight. By detailing downtrodden communities and people living on the fringes, Mark produced stark metaphors that broached far larger societal issues.

Mark’s work is often described as photojournalism, but she wasn’t a fan of the comparison. She rarely produced a series with a neat beginning, middle and end. Rather, her images portrayed people as they were, raw and without the romance or tidy conclusions that people often expect from traditional storytelling mediums. Mark’s exhaustive approach changed the way we look at people living in poverty.

“Much of life is luck,” said Mark on her interest in subcultures. “No one can choose whether they are born into a wealthy privileged home or born into extreme poverty. I guess I’m interested in people who haven’t had as much of a chance”

Mark’s Compassionate Approach to Photography

In taking portraits of some of society’s most at-risk people, Mark’s sense of responsibility was unflinching. In today’s world of parachute journalism, where journalists rush into an unfamiliar place and quickly leave again with a shallow story, she would commit to her projects for months or years before considering it finished. Falkland Road, a landmark project documenting sex workers in present-day Mumbai, took Mark over 10 years to capture. Facing an intense environment with daily hostile encounters, Mark completed the series by earning the trust of locals over a three-month stay. Likewise for Ward 81, Mark spent 36 days living inside the mental institution, getting to know each of the women in her images on a personal level.

Falkland Road, 1978.

I think you have to have a real point of view that’s your own.”

Embarking on these projects over a sustained period allowed Mark to develop the sharp visual expression behind her images, forming a deep connection between her gaze and the emotion of her subjects. Some of Mark’s most enduring images were created for Streetwise, a project highlighting the homeless children of Seattle, considered one of America’s most liveable cities at the time. Mark was commissioned for the project, but soon established personal relationships with many of the children shown in her images. She revisited them over the following years, with Erin ‘Tiny’ Blackwell’s story reaching far and wide due to Mark’s iconic photography.

Getting to know her subjects was central to Mark’s success as a photographer, while another key aspect involved acknowledging that she had her own perspective. Her intense need to understand people and reveal their existence to a wider audience makes it tricky to pigeonhole Mark’s work as photojournalism or documentary photography. In recent times, the term ‘social documentary’ has been used to describe the style of Mark and her contemporaries, as truth remains vital but the photographer doesn’t keep a neutral perspective like a journalist. As Mark said: “I think you have to have a real point of view that’s your own. You have to tell it your way…You have to shoot for yourself and photograph [the way] you believe it.”

Capture People With Honesty Like Mary Ellen Mark


In all of Mark’s portraits, she wanted her subject to be directly involved in the finished image. For her famous portrait of the circus ringmaster with his elephant, he decided to wrap the trunk around his head, adding a personal touch that conveyed his evident ego. 

Ram Prakash Singh with His Elephant Shyama, 1990.


Mark remained committed to shooting on film throughout her lifetime. But she suggested if you do shoot digitally, you should cover your camera screen. This way, you can focus on perfecting your settings and capturing the scene just as it appears in front of you. Walk away knowing you have the shot, rather than relying on the screen to show you.


Mark shot in both colour and black-and-white throughout her career, but she preferred the latter because it helped communicate her stories. Shooting in colour makes it difficult to draw the attention of your viewer, as their eyes wander across various aspects of your image. If you want to make a visual statement with a clear message, black-and-white can help you accomplish that.

Pinky and Shiva Ji, 1992.


Across all her long-term projects, Mark wanted every single image to provide a powerful summary of the entire series. This way, the individual photographs could be of different people or places, but when viewed together, they united to create a cohesive project where the overarching message wasn’t difficult to grasp.

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Hudson Brown

Hudson Brown is a Melbourne-based freelance writer when he's not travelling the globe. His words have been featured in the likes of SBS Food, Treadlie Magazine and Paper Sea Quarterly, while he was previously the editorial assistant for small footprint living publication Assemble Papers. He is also a regular contributor to Concrete Playground where he covers the latest art, culture and gastronomic happenings around town.

2020-07-20T02:18:59+00:00Categories: Photography|Tags: , , |