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What I learned from listening to Mary Ellen Mark

September 6, 2008

“Most trainers of chimps are missing at least one finger.”

“[Being a photographer] is like being a musician–you have to practice all the time.”

“I love reality. I love the challenge of reality.”
– Spoken in answer to what she thought about digital, and explaining why she’s not a Photoshopper.

The first quote was just funny, but what I learned from seeing her, and felt in the room, is the warmth, idealism, and love that she pours into her work. As she showed us the Twins project, she named every twin and told something about most of them. When she showed photographs of special needs children in Iceland (and an image from the twins series of two teenagers who were born hydrocephalic and with cerebral palsy, held in the laps of their caretakers), she shared the thanks from their families who were grateful that for once their children were not being shunted out of sight but shown under the lights of honor and care.

I wonder a lot about what I should “do” with my photography, what I should focus on, what its value is and how, not least, to make it pay for itself. Hearing her speak and show the cream from decades worth of photographic exploration and social concern reminded me that perhaps too many questions get in the way. Yes, it’s not easy, and you have to carry a lot of crap around all the time, and be fluent with a flash, and get over being nervous about asking people to be photographed. But maybe what I need to “do” most is just love it. And that’s easy.

Here’s to you, Mary Ellen Mark.

MEM at work on the street

MEM at work on the street

photo by slowernet

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