Renowned photographer, Mary Ellen Mark, passed away recently at age 75, and is perhaps best remembered for her work that peeks into the lives of kids from disadvantaged situations. One of her most iconic portraits, “Amanda and her cousin Amy,” depicts two young girls on a summer afternoon in a kiddy pool, one of them suggestively smoking with smudged eye makeup, while the other peers up in an almost fearful expression. In lieu of Mark’s death, NPR tracked down the cigarette smoking Amanda to ask her about how the shoot impacted her life, and what she is up to today some 20 years later.
In the interview, now grown-up Amanda Ellison tells NPR that she and Mark formed a special bond based on their shared experience of being labeled “problem children.” Ellison admits that at the time, she had hopes that the exposure provided by Mark’s photographs would bring her much needed care and attention, “When she came along and took those photos, I thought, ‘Well, hey, people will see me and this may get me the attention that I want; it may change things for me.”’ She thought someone would see the images and come rescue her. “I had thought that that might have been the way out. But it wasn’t.”
Today as an adult Ellison believes that her life has improved, although she is still surrounded by “crazy people and drugs.” She thinks that if Mark were around to see her today she would be “ overwhelmed with joy that she has made it this far.”
“She’s my favorite,” Mark told BRITISH VOGUE in 1993. “She was so bad she was wonderful, she had a really vulgar mouth, she was brilliant.”
Although Mark’s body of work over a lifetime could be considered the outcome of a highly socially conscious and humanist project, Mark herself acknowledged that in the relationship between the photographer and the subject there is an unfair advantage on the side of the photographer. Although the brief interaction between Ellison and Mark had a positive impact on Ellison’s life, the social and economic issues that made Ellison’s childhood difficult remained. Mark was careful never to make promises to Ellison, or any of her subjects for that matter, and yet Ellison, at the time a pre-teen with few options, could not help but see her moment in the spotlight as a stepping stone towards a better life.
Mark had the unique ability to be highly empathetic and revealing, delving deeply into the stories and environments of her subjects. Yet she had to maintain the role of an outside observer to avoid being seen as a savior in situations where she was working with subjects that systems had failed deeply and unfairly. Ultimately, the interaction between Mark and Ellison impacted both parties positively, standing out today as a bright spot in Ellison’s memory, and resulting in a picture that has now become engrained into the public consciousness.
If you’ve never explored Mark’s full body of work, it is worth your time – however haunting it may be.