Kenyon College

Mary Ellen Mark and the Ethics of Representation


Mary Ellen Mark’s works in the exhibition Stories of Self-Reflection: Portraiture by Women Photographers, Tiny Blowing a Bubble and Acrobat with a Dog, encapsulate the breadth of her subjects and locations. Mark was part of the social documentary photography movement, which utilized photography as a political and artistic tool to promote social awareness. The visual and ideological dialogue created by these two works call into question the ethics of representation within social documentary photography and reveal the significance of the gap between intention and reception when representing marginalized people.

Mark observed in On The Portrait and The Moment that photographers often believe that the seemingly exotic or foreign appearance of a person or a scene makes a “true” photograph, and warned against this behavior in favor of a more authentic connection between photographer and subject.1 Her photos are traditionally viewed as deeply empathetic and exist because of the strong friendships that she built and maintained (often through continued photographing) with many of the people who had agreed to become her subjects. Tiny, pictured in Tiny Blowing a Bubble, was a young woman who Mark photographed throughout the last 32 years of her own life. Mark first met Tiny during the filming of Streetwise (1984), which was a documentary intended to raise awareness of runaway youth in Seattle, and which was directed by Mark’s husband. Mark often worked by asking permission to photograph her subjects and then encouraging them to pose or situate themselves while she constructed the frame of the photo, which was likely her method for Acrobat with a Dog. She used this method to create portraits which, in her own words, captured “a real moment [that wasn’t] directed,” or portrayed an authentic dialogue between photographer and subject.2 The unique realness in Mark’s photos happens precisely because the subjects are aware of being seen by Mark: her photos are documentations of the interactions between photographer, camera, and subject.

Both Mark’s marginalized subjects and the tension between the empathy and separation amongst photographer and subject recall the work of Diane Arbus, and can receive many of the same criticisms that Susan Sontag made of Arbus’s work in On Photography. Sontag argues that Arbus’ photographs’ “acceptance of the appalling suggests a naïvaté which is both coy and sinister, for it is based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really ‘other.’”3 In contrast to Arbus, Mark did not think of her subjects as appalling, but she did share this distance from and privilege over Tiny, who was a young sex worker at the time, and the acrobat who remains nameless. These two young women each boldly stare straight into Mark’s camera, and then straight at the viewer, challenging the viewer’s idea of ‘the other’ by speaking for themselves with their gaze. Tiny Blowing a Bubble and Acrobat with a Dog ask us whether it is better to represent marginalized people in a work of art, knowing that you are distorting (and possibly masking) their voice by filtering it through your own in order to create opportunities for empathy and discussion, or not to represent these people because you risk misrepresenting them and magnifying their otherness? In order to begin to answer this question, the viewer should keep in mind Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s argument in “Can the Subaltern Speak,” that one must understand that the two types of representation are related but distinct, the first being “representation as ‘speaking for’, as in politics, and representation as ‘re-presentation’, as in art or philosophy”.4 In this ethically grey area of ‘representation’, Tiny and the acrobat speak for themselves, but Mark also speaks for them in the way that she frames them.

It is also important to consider Mark’s intention in ‘re-presenting’ Tiny and the acrobat, and her subjects in general, because her intention shapes the ethics of her representation. In an interview published in Aperture, when asked whether her political views were informed by what she sees in her work, Mark replied, “being a social documentary photographer…has made me realize how unfair the world is….I never feel that my pictures are about changing the world. They’re just about people. I would hope that they are about people recognizing themselves in others. My photographs are more about emotions than politics.”5 As Mark’s work continues to be viewed after her death, viewers of her work must consider whether or not a separation between emotion and politics was realistic when these photographs were taken, and whether it is realistic today. How can we define/find an ethics of representation within social documentary photography when it is both a political and an artistic practice?

Annika Ostrom ‘20

1. Mary Ellen Mark, On the Portrait and the Moment (Aperture, 2015), 24-27.
2. Ibid., 35.
3. Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Dell Publishing, 1977), 34.
4. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: a Reader, ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 70.
5. Mary Ellen Mark and Melissa Harris, “Mary Ellen Mark,” Aperture, no. 146, Winter 1997, 48,

Image: Mary Ellen Mark (American, 1940-2015), Tiny Blowing a Bubble, Seattle (from“Streetwise”), 1983. Silver gelatin print. 16 x 24 inches. Collection of David Horvitz ‘74 and Francie Bishop Good. © Mary Ellen Mark, courtesy of The Mary Ellen Mark Foundation and the Howard Greenberg Gallery.


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