Focused on a life: Photographer uses camera as force for change

Celebrated photographer Mary Ellen Mark is famous for revealing the humanity of people who live on the margins, be they prostitutes in Bombay, white supremacists in Idaho or formerly hot mamas kicking up their heels in Miami's senior community.

In Mark's often-stark black-and-white photographs, the misunderstood, the self-destructive, the unnoticed and the sidelined confront the viewer, daring the world to turn away but not begging for pity. Mark comes from a generation of photographers who believe cameras can be used as a force for change.

But on the other side of Mark's lens is a photographer whose own life is shaped by the lives she so meticulously documents.

Few other subjects in Mark's 40-year career have preoccupied her so forcefully as a Federal Way woman who has seemingly stepped through the camera into Mark's private world.

Mark and her husband, documentary filmmaker Martin Bell, were in town earlier this month to promote her latest photo book, "Twins" (Aperture, $50), a 95-page tribute to identical siblings.

But the main reason for the visit was to connect with "Tiny," aka Erin Charles, a subject from her 1983 Life magazine photo essay "Streetwise." The essay and subsequent book take an unflinching look at the lives of runaways and street kids in Seattle. Bell's documentary of his wife's project, also titled "Streetwise," was nominated for an Academy Award. Mark has been photographing Tiny ever since that project, capturing both the mundane and milestone moments of her life.

Tracking Tiny

Mark first spotted Tiny outside the Monastery, an infamous Seattle nightspot, in 1983.

"This taxi pulled up, and a baby stepped out," Mark recalled of that first encounter. She was struck by the contrast between Tiny's childlike looks and the tight jeans and makeup she was wearing. "She was dressed to kill. It was right out of 'Taxi Driver.' "

"I tried to talk to her, but she thought I was the police," Mark said.

The photographer eventually learned her would-be subject's name and visited her at home. "That was the beginning of a 20-year relationship."

Back then, Tiny was a strong-willed teenager who had rebelled against school and her mother. She was turning tricks for money and doing drugs. She was a kid suddenly thrust into an all-too-grown-up world. But Mark sensed that her bad-girl image and tightened, downcast mouth hid a compelling photographic story.

Today, Tiny is a 34-year-old married mother of eight living in Federal Way. Mark's photographs of her trace the transformation of a street-smart girl dreaming of owning "three yachts or more" to a woman struggling to raise a family on a limited income.

Mark was there to photograph the birth of Tiny's first child, who's 17 now. She was also there to take photos of Tiny at Thanksgiving about four years ago. Among the few constants in Tiny's life are Mark and her camera.

When Tiny was younger, Mark and Bell offered to move her to New York and put her in school. Still attached to her life on the edge and completely disinterested in school, Tiny refused.

She spent her teens and 20s hanging out with her street friends, quarreling with her mother, doing drugs, getting busted — basically throwing it all away, even as she continued to have children.

About four years ago, Tiny started to turn her life around. She got married and quit drugs.

"Her love of the streets is gone now — she's like a suburban housewife," Mark said with a grin.

Lifetime subject

Mark came to visit and photograph Tiny one last time in the Seattle area before Tiny moves with her husband and children to South Carolina. Mark plans to publish a career retrospective, and she wants the book to include images from every stage of her relationship with Tiny.

"That's my mission: Every few years, find her and take pictures of her," Mark said. "She is my lifetime subject."

In Tiny, Mark has fused the professional and the personal, resulting in photographs that are strikingly intimate and sympathetic but which also possess a stripped-down realism.

Their relationship would appear to breach the line typically drawn between documentarians and their subjects. When Mark talks about Tiny and her "beautiful" children, her voice carries all the affection of a doting aunt or grandmother. Mark and her husband speak to Tiny by phone every week.

Hasn't their bond, in fact, altered the course of Tiny's life? Would she be so stable today if no one had bothered to validate her existence in photographs over 20 years?

Mark dismisses that notion.

"It's (her) inner strength; it's not something from outside," she said.

Tiny herself seemed conflicted about the nature of their bond and its impact on her up-and-down life.

"I survived — I was pretty damn lucky," Tiny said by telephone. Tiny described herself as a young woman who had wasted too much of her life in the street and drug scene, and finally moved on. At first, she described Mark and Bell merely as friends.

Later that day, she left this voice mail: "I looked at Martin and Mary Ellen as the parents that I never had."

Tiny is still struggling. She's a far cry, however, from the tough little girl who first caught Mark's eye.

Tiny escaped her world

Among the compelling aspects of Mark's work is the sense that her subjects are resigned, for better or worse, to the world they inhabit.

The more uplifting projects, like "Twins," present people who are immutably bonded not just by blood but by every discernable physical feature, right down to their choice of footwear.

In the more downbeat work, there seems to be no exit from the grip of poverty, the delusion of racism, the misery of the brothel. One subject from the "Streetwise" documentary project, Roberta Joseph Hayes, has been identified as one of "Green River killer" Gary Ridgway's victims. Another troubled subject committed suicide.

Yet despite the odds, those photos still quietly call for change.

Whether she spurred Tiny's evolution or not, Mark will always see something special and gratifying in those photographs of Tiny. The images depict a young woman inching farther and farther from the fringes.

"It's so difficult in this world to escape destiny," Mark said. "But she's done it."

Tyrone Beason: 206-464-2251 or

More on Mary Ellen Mark

Photographer Mary Ellen Mark's new book is "Twins" (Aperture, $50). For more information about her work, visit Mark's Web site. The Photographic Center Northwest offers Mary Ellen Mark workshops in Oaxaca, Mexico, twice a year. Call 206-720-7222 for details.