Mary Ellen Mark - March 20, 1940 - May 25, 2015

words and photo by Cheryl Dunn

A few years ago, I had the extreme privilege of interviewing Mary Ellen Mark in her Soho loft for my film, “Everybody Street.” She had always been such an inspiration to me as a photographer, and as a woman. When I visited her in her studio, I saw her walls were lined with documentary photographs that she had mostly traded from her peers—the best of the best.

Mary Ellen told me about her life and career. She seemed beyond fearless. In her early 20s she was shooting on Fellini’s set of “Satyricon.” She told me stories of shooting the brothels in India and getting pelted by garbage in the streets. She spent six weeks living in an insane asylum for “Ward 81.” She showed me files and files of story ideas that she had pitched over the years. She was not someone who sat back and let things come her way, she aggressively pursued most of her opportunities. She made it happen for herself.

Mary Ellen was invested in many of her documentary subjects, she went deep, spent years—sometimes decades—photographing “the truth.” She told me, “your subject can tell you what the picture is. Makes it for you. So I’m not a strong believer in heavy duty concepts when I do portraits of people. I sort of like it to come from the people.” And it did come from the people. Their souls came pouring out to her.

I asked her if she felt being a woman helped or hurt her in her pursuits. She replied, “I’m a fighter. I think it’s harder to be a woman than a man. I’ll definitely admit that, but I think that there’s also an advantage to being a female photographer, if you’re a street photographer, because I can walk down the street and knock on a door and someone will let me in. I’m less threatening than a man.”

And people did let her in. She spent her life sharing those unseen intimate moments for us, sharing the truths.

At the end of our interview, I asked Mary Ellen to speak on her work’s defining thread, “I’m a humanist. I like to photograph people and the human condition.”

Great documentary photographs channel human emotion. Mary Ellen Mark was a medium of sorts, her pictures emoted undeniable tangible power. We have lost a great artist, photographer and humanist. She will be truly missed.

Ashley, New Orleans, Louisiana 

Ashley: I got involved with a man. I thought he was the best man that I’d ever met in my entire life, so I left home at 16. We were together 7 years. I had two of his kids. This is not my favorite thing to talk about but… he is a heroin addict and I figured, all this time, I could change him and there was no changing him. 

He brought me here [New Orleans] about 2 months ago. I’m pregnant again, as you can see, about 5 months. Recently he up and just disappeared. So, this is the position I’m in at this point. 

BW: Did he have a heroin problem from the beginning?

Ashley: He did but I didn’t know that. It seemed like the perfect, whirlwind, sweep you off your feet, I’m gonna show you the world, Aladdin kind of story and it just didn’t turn out that way.

BW: So, where are you staying?

Ashley: There’s abandoned buildings everywhere here. Basically you can stay in almost any of them and they don’t arrest you so…

BW: Where are you from?

Ashley: Boynton Beach, Florida

BW: You said you have two kids. How old are they?

Ashley: 2 and 3

BW: Where are they?

Ashley: They are currently with my mom in Florida. I gave permanent custody to them because this isn’t the position that I want them in. 

BW: A lot of people that I talk to got started using through the person they’re with. Did you start using heroin at any point?

Ashley: No, luckily for me I’m allergic to heroin. I did have a crack cocaine problem for a while but recently, because of the baby, I’ve been off that as well. 

BW: What was the hardest day?

Ashley: The day DCF came in and said, “we’re taking your kids.” The drug test came up dirty and they literally came in and took the kids by force, with a police warrant and I had to watch them take my two babies out of my life. 

BW: What are your plans? Do you want to make it back to Florida?

Ashley: I can’t go back because of the DCF restraining order with my kids. I can’t be within the same county so if I went back I’d be in the same position as here. 

Your parents tell you, when you’re younger, “This isn’t what you think it’s gonna be. He’s not who you think he is.” And you think, “No, I know everything. I’m young. I can do anything.” You can’t.

My biggest regret is not listening to my parents. Not taking their advice when they said, “If you do this, you will regret it someday.”

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