Photography Masters - Mary Ellen Mark
Sunday Magazine

Photography Masters - Mary Ellen Mark

Siddharth S. Kumar

Siddharth S. Kumar

Between the late 1960s and early 1990s, Mary Ellen Mark, a humanist American photojournalist known for her compelling empathetic images, visited India repeatedly to photograph the prostitutes of Mumbai, as well as spend time with Mother Teresa, and shoot 18 travelling circuses in India. The result was the publication of three evocative books: Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay, Photographs of Mother Teresa’s Missions of Charity in Calcutta, India, and Indian Circus. Born in 1940 in Philadelphia, Mark came into real prominence with her 1983 spread Streetwise published in Life Magazine and the 2015 series “Tiny: Streetwise Revisited,” which together documented the lives of homeless youths over the course of three decades.

Mark is regarded as an icon of modern photography influencing viewers and peers alike for documenting eclectic personalities around the world who would otherwise go unknown and forgotten. Being one of the most-acclaimed female photojournalists, she created photo-essays for major publications, like Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Time, Paris Match, Stern, and Vanity Fair.

Tiny in her Halloween costume, Seattle, Washington, 1983. This is a portrait of a girl who is living on the streets of Seattle dressed up for Halloween as a French prostitute. This photograph is part of a photo essay entitled Streetwise where Mark documents children who’ve left their families in favour of living on the street.

Mark, through her black and white photographs, had the uncanny ability to capture her subject’s story in a single frame and also make it arresting. Her creative output also included portraiture and advertising photography.

Focussing upon critical social issues such as homelessness, loneliness, drug addiction, and prostitution, Mark’s images of our world's diverse cultures have become landmarks in the field of documentary photography, for which she travelled around the world chronicling the human condition. She explained her fascination thus: ‘I'm just interested in people on the edges. I feel an affinity for people who haven't had the best breaks in society. What I want to do more than anything is acknowledge their existence.’

It was this commitment that made her visit India for an assignment when she was just 28. Moreover, when she was 36, she stayed in a high security women’s ward for two months at the Oregon State Hospital in order to take a realistic snapshot of the trials and tribulations of mentally ill women in a locked ward. The resultant book, Ward 81, contains moving photos which in a way embody Mark’s attempts to document the human condition with both compassion and objectivity.

The Damm family in their car, Los Angeles, California, 1987. This photograph of a homeless family is framed in such a way that it conveys many emotions. Though they are together hugging each other as you would expect in a normal family photo, their faces are devoid of any warm expression or hope. The lady almost looks lifeless. The condition of the car which is in tatters also further adds to the story of the family.

It is the same spirit that motivated Mark to photograph the Vietnam War demonstrations, the women’s liberation movement, and the transvestite culture. Even just before her death, Mark's last assignment was Picture This: New Orleans -- her mission was to capture, after ten years of Hurricane Katrina , the lives of residents affected by the devastation. Mark died in May 2015, and the show debuted in August of the same year.

Mark’s wide canvas extended to the movie sets too—she created production stills for over one hundred films including Alice’s Restaurant, Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge, Apocalypse Now, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest...Mark's photographs appeared in many gallery exhibitions, and she also taught and lectured around the globe. Author of 18 books, there is no doubt that she helped shape the careers of many photographers and inspired countless more worldwide.

No wonder she was bestowed with numerous honours and awards: Lifetime Achievement in Photography Award from the George Eastman House; Outstanding Contribution Photography Award from the World Photography Organisation; Infinity Award and Cornell Capa Award from the International Center of Photography; Distinguished Photographer’s Award, Women in Photography; The Phillipe Halsman Award for Photojournalism from the American Society of Magazine Photographers; and Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award multiple times.

Mother Teresa at the home for the dying, Mother Teresa’s Missions of Charity, Calcutta, India, 1980. This photo perfectly captures Mother Teresa doing what she is known for making it a powerful storytelling photo.

Talking to Time magazine, Charles Harbutt, the American photographer and former Magnum Photos’ president and long-time friend and colleague of Mark, on her death commented: ‘Mary Ellen considered herself a portraitist, but her pictures were not just the famous. She wanted her work to count, to be about important things in our world, things we should pay attention to. Ultimately, I think her prime theme was the situation for women in our tired old world: Ward 81 a woman’s ward in an asylum, girl prostitutes in Bombay, Tiny (a lifelong project), a homeless child/woman, Mother Theresa, high school Proms, even the Indian circuses, all talk about life and death in our world.’


Siddharth Kumar, is the Co-Founder & Lead Photographer SIDART Photography, a professional photography venture focusing on weddings, portraiture and commercial photography. After an 8-year stint in an MNC, he decided to pursue his passion for photography and music. In 2019, he was awarded Certificate of Honorable Mention by International Photography Awards (IPA), Los Angeles. In 2014, he won the First Prize at the International Photography Competition organized by Mindshare Worldwide. He holds a Grade 8 Certificate in Piano Performance from Trinity College London.