Visual Art: Mary Ellen Mark, “Amanda and Her Cousin Amy, Valdese, North Carolina, USA, 1990” (from the series, “Streets of the Lost,” Museum of Contemporary Photography

By Taylor Robinson

Mary Ellen Mark captures the perfect moment to tell a story, documenting the marginalized people of society the way a photojournalist would. But she never puts her subjects down, honestly capturing their vulnerability. Her photograph, “Amanda and Her Cousin Amy,” beautifully and horrifically depicts a 9-year-old girl juxtaposed with her 8 year-old cousin, showing just how fast children can grow up.

In 1990, Mark was sent to North Carolina to photograph a “special school for children with problems.” There, Mark gained interest in Amanda, age 9, saying “Amanda was the most interesting child in the class.” Mark spent a day with Amanda, generating one of her most well-known and striking photographs.

Mark’s photographs of those living on the margins of society are haunting. Her collections push the boundaries of what makes a photo “appropriate” rather than exploitative; her photos feel as if they come without judgment. Mark shot her photos with film — something that can be dirty and imperfect. Digital wasn’t an option in 1990, but the lasting impact her film photos have in our world of digital shows how important this piece of artwork is.

The photo of Amanda and Amy is simply done in black and white. It shows two young girls, one standing and one sitting in a plastic swimming pool. The girl standing  in the front of the photo is Amanda. She is wearing a two-piece bathing suit, earrings, and heavy eye makeup. In the back of the photo is an 8-year-old girl, Amy, sitting in the pool, wearing a t-shirt. The contrast between the two girls is what makes the photograph so successful.

Unposed, Amanda is standing in a way that gives us her personality in an instant. She has her arms crossed and is smoking a cigarette, blowing the smoke out and making eye contact with the camera. She has on earrings, a necklace, a frilly bathing suit, and heavy eyeliner. Amy sits in the water, completely covered in a t-shirt, showing no expression.

The photograph is shocking and controversial. Mark said that when she went to Amanda’s home, Amanda was hiding from her in the woods smoking a cigarette, worried that if Mark saw her she would be scolded. Mark said nothing. In Mark’s book Exposure (Phaidon Press, 2006), the photographer commented, “All day long, Amanda and her cousin played like children. Every forty-five minutes or so, Amanda would take a break to have a cigarette.” The photo shocks with both its depiction of how fast the children in the world are growing up, or think they’re grown up, and its exploitative nature.

In hindsight, Amanda (Marie Ellison) said when the photo was taken, she wished someone would see it and “come rescue her.” This brings up the question of whether or not Mark’s photographs were exploitative  — she obviously knew that her subjects were underprivileged and already living a difficult life. Was it morally or ethically “okay” to publish these photographs? To exploit people in this way? It’s done constantly, more now with smartphones where you can access a camera in an instant, but that doesn’t mean it’s an okay thing to do. That’s what makes this photograph very successful as a piece of art — it is controversial in its morals, and it brings interest to the context around the photo.

Mark’s photograph is a fantastic piece of artwork. However, it is extremely disturbing to see this 9-year old girl, in all her sexuality and corruptness, permanently documented in a stand-still piece of time. Successful? Yes. Would it make a great piece of artwork inside a home? Probably not, it’s very disturbing. Would it spark conversation? Definitely. If generating conversation and questions is what makes art successful, Mark’s photograph is, without a doubt.