Q&A with Mary Ellen Mark, documentary photographer

Trends Reporter

Award-winning documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark has traveled the world to show the human condition through her camera lens. This has resulted in a series of color photographs of prostitutes called the “Cage Girls of Bombay,” published in the London Sunday Times in 1981. Mark lived among these women for three months in the brothel district of Bombay, now Mumbai, capturing both their professional and personal side. She has also photographed the likes of actors Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jr.

The “animalistic quality of man” and the circus of life is captured in Mark’s 90-image exhibition “Man and Beast: Photographs from Mexico and India” is on display at the Wittliff Collections until December. Many of these photographs represent performers and trainers of traveling circuses.

The University Star spoke with Mark by phone from her eponymous New York-based studio about her work, as well as the free exhibition and a talk with her that will be held at 2 p.m. April 27 at the Wittliff Collections in celebration of the publication of “Man and Beast: Photographs from Mexico and India.”

Jordan Gass-Poore’: How did you become involved with the Wittliff Collections?
Mary Ellen Mark: I knew Bill (Wittliff) and he asked me to be involved.

JGP: When did you first meet Bill? How did that relationship form?
MEM: I met Bill a few years ago; actually, it was like three, four years ago. I happened to be in Austin ‘cause I was working on a film. It was 2010 when I actually met (Bill) and we talked about (the exhibition).

JGP: What are some of the differences between photojournalism for you and maybe more art photography or non-photojournalism?
MEM: Well, I never really thought of myself as a photojournalist. I’m much more like a documentary photographer. You know, I’ve always thought in individual pictures, more than storytelling.

JGP: How do you form those relationships with your subjects?
MEM: Well, you know, you just form them, that’s what you do. I mean, if you’re interested in them and they grant permission to photograph them and you just form relationships, that’s just part of who you are.

JGP: Do you think that forming those relationships and having those close bonds influences your photography or how the end product turns out?
MEM: I think it does. If you have a relationship with people and they trust you then you’re going to get far more access.

JGP: Who or what has been your favorite subject to photograph?
MEM: Well, there’s not really a favorite subject; each one’s so different. I don’t really have a favorite one. Each one has been very different and I’ve been very lucky to have had the opportunity to work on a lot of different projects.

JGP: What are the differences between photographing in black and white and color?
MEM: I’ve always just loved black and white. I just like the abstraction of it, simplicity of it, you know? I mean, I think I see in black and white.

JGP: What is the process like photographing in another country and a different culture (“Cage Girls of Bombay”)?
MEM: When I first went to India, someone took me to see that street in Bombay, it’s called Falkland Road, and I’ve always wanted to go back there and to make photographs. So, I was finally able to, that was during a time when you could really talk a magazine into assigning you to something you really wanted to do. So, for me magazines were like grants, they were like my way of getting grants. You know, so I could work on the subjects I really wanted to work on.

JGP: And going to other countries and being surrounded by a new culture, especially the language barrier, how does one go and look to take photographs and talk to the people about what your work is going to entail?
MEM: It’s not difficult. People are people. And I try to pick subjects that are universal, like the circus or like prostitutes of Bombay, or even Mother Theresa, work in India. I think people can universally understand it. They weren’t so much about a secret, private ritual in India that only takes place in India, they weren’t ethnographic, they were more universal.