By Lauren Kostiuk
Mary Ellen Mark’s 1983 collection of photographs documenting homeless youth in Seattle sheds light on a once-invisible population; their unforgettable faces captured America’s attention by exposing a chilling truth. The photo essay “Streets of the Lost,” published in LIFE Magazine, beautifully captures the juxtaposition of innocence and maturity with a blur of childhood purity mixed by the melodrama on the streets of Seattle.
The images show homeless youth taking drags from cigarette butts in rundown alleys and on street corners, sleeping on floors and mattresses in filthy buildings, injecting needles into their arms and flicking off older men in business attire. But most of all, Mark was able to capture the people of Seattle who once hid on the fringes of society, and intimately brought them into the spotlight of vulnerability by implementing herself into their culture and lifestyle. It was a thin line to cross, but Mark made a big impact, shocking America with the images enough to create change, which they did.
One of the photographs from “Streets of the Lost,” “Lillie with Her Rag Doll,” is currently being displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Photography as part of the exhibition “MoCP at 40.” At first glance, it is hard to identify the 13-year-old girl who is dressed in baggy clothing and is taking a drag on the last of a cigarette while cradling a worn-out rag doll in her arm. Her stance gives the sense that she is worn and tired. In the background, messy graffiti shows the word “dope” in big letters referring to the large illegal drug use in the area. The photo feels like her life was fast-forwarded into adulthood through her exposure on the streets. What is most striking about the image is the easy confusion of the young girl being mistaken as an adult except for the doll, which symbolizes the innocence of the 13-year-old. The image demonstrates the closeness and friendship Mark had with many of her subjects. She didn’t just take a photograph of them and move on, but developed a relationship that allowed her to photograph them at their most vulnerable state.
The image perfectly demonstrates the phenomenon that was happening in Seattle at the time as many young teenagers left their homes and families for the dangerous and intriguing life on the streets. Many slept in abandoned buildings and had to search and beg for food, even looking in dumpsters or stealing from nearby stores. Some of the girls would result to prostitution and hustling on street corners.
Mark said she picked Seattle because it was one of America’s “most livable cities” and also because she wanted to prove that if kids were living on the streets of Seattle, then they were living on the streets of other major cities everywhere. Many of the teenagers and kids were running from abuse and alcoholic parents, or from families who neglected them or couldn’t take care of them. Even though the reasons varied, one thing was always clear: They were running from something, and Mark made that obvious in her photos. She took efforts to not just photograph children as children, but to think of them as adults, and to show who they might become. Every photo shows the devotion and compassion Mark had for telling each subject’s story with respect and energy.
The images allowed Seattle’s population to become a crushing narrative for the nation and to help society better understanding homeless youth culture. Mark was able to honestly demonstrate and bring to life her subjects’ souls and their lost understanding for the world. Each image sparks a deeper meaning and thought in the viewer in transports them to the phenomenon of 1983.
Mark’s photo essay was turned into a book in 1988 titled Streetwise, and later became a film that she collaborated on with her husband, Martin Bell.