I knew Mary Ellen as a friend long before I knew Oaxaca. She encouraged me to come to one of her workshops at a time when I wasn't sure what the next stage of my creative life would be. I was not a photographer then, and brought an old Nikon, which I still use. I think she also wanted me join her on her shopping forays, but on my first trip I fell in Love with Oaxaca, its villages, traditions, people, and photography. I was hooked!
The generous friend I knew became the most generous teacher, one who inspired me, with each workshop, to keep on looking for that elusive good picture. She knew me well, my temperament and boldness, and suggested early on that I should be out on the streets, wandering and looking, that I would be bored in one place, confined by walls. I walked the streets, went to the same celebrations in the same villages every year. Armed with my Nikon, I roamed the streets of the city and mountain towns, the food and animal markets, went to traditional events, children's playgrounds, the circus, always shooting outside, with film, and in natural light with my wide-angle lens.
Mary Ellen was a tireless mentor, critic and champion. of my efforts. After each meeting with her my of my previous day's work, I felt inspired and determined to do better. Although I wandered alone, she was always with me in my head, and now she remains with me, as I continue to take pictures, in my heart.
I have been photographing for about 10 years and began working as a freelance photographer about five years ago after graduating from the Ljósmyndaskólinn school of photography in Reykjavik. My work consists of minimalistic images that I make in my home country and during my travels.
One summer night a few years ago I received a phone call from Effi – Einar Falur Ingólfsson – a friend of Mary Ellen Mark. Just a few days earlier, I’d heard she was coming to Iceland do a workshop in Reykjavik and was really interested. I had run a photo lab for about five years and Effi said Mary Ellen was coming to do a workshop with him and also would shoot for three weeks in a summer camp for disabled children. She needed an assistant who knew how to work with film, medium format and 35mm. I didn’t have to think about it even for a second.
A month or so later I met Mary Ellen and her husband, Martin Bell. The work went well and Mary Ellen, Effi, Martin and I worked together for the next four years.
Working with Mary Ellen pushed me to step up my game and opened up my vision for photography. Also, through the workshops with Mary Ellen in Iceland and in Oaxaca, I’ve made numerous friends all over the world.
I am forever grateful to have met Mary Ellen and have had the opportunity to work with her and to be able to call her a friend and a mentor.
Long ago, I’d returned to college after a long period of youthful self-destruction. I had no plan, no purpose, but I did have a job, my first in years. I set up tables and chairs in a fancy hotel. I vacuumed, I emptied trash. I enjoyed the orderliness after a life of disarray.
One day, in the college library, I saw two photographs in a magazine, both made in India. In one, a boy sat in a cafe. His hair was long, his shirt torn. He leaned, dreamy-eyed, toward a glowing light. He was me. In the second, a hippie couple rested on a beach. They wore white, wispy clothes. They gazed languidly toward the sea. They, too, were me, looking, searching, suspended in between places.
Those photographs were the first I’d seen that captured the disconnection I felt during those years. I’ve never forgotten them. Nor the photographer: Mary Ellen Mark. Years later, in an interview with the New York Times, said, ““I’m just interested in people on the edges. I feel an affinity for people who haven’t had the best breaks in society. I’m always on their side. I find them more human maybe. What I want to do more than anything is acknowledge their existence.” In those photographs of the dewy-eyed hippies in India, Mary Ellen had acknowledged my existence.
Mary Ellen’s photographs inspired me. I bought a camera, joined the college paper, and started shooting news. There was plenty of that in those days — kidnappings, demonstrations, strikes. I became a journalist – first a photographer, then a writer and now both.
The journalism led me to my wife (a reporter), who introduced me to Oaxaca (where her godparents lived), which is where, many years later, I found Mary Ellen again (in her workshops). Thank you, Mary Ellen, for photography, for Oaxaca, for my life.
Seven years ago, for my 50th birthday, I treated myself to a 10-day workshop in Oaxaca with my photography hero, Mary Ellen Mark. The experience changed my life.
Studying with Mary Ellen reconnected me to my passion for photography. My first class with her, however, was intimidating. Mary Ellen had an unnerving ability to look deep within people to discover their authentic selves. All I wanted to do was hide. But hiding wasn’t an option. Instead, she set me to the daily task of finding my essence and nurturing my creativity through my relationship to my images.
Mary Ellen paired my love of experimenting with light in photography with my dedication to social justice. Knowing I care deeply about the welfare and empowerment of women and children, she sent me to orphanages, to schools for deaf children and for those with Down Syndrome, and to a home for children whose mothers work the streets. My life has been nourished by my relationships with the people I met there, and I have returned every year. Many of the children have become family to me.
Mary Ellen was as much a spiritual teacher as a photography mentor, and today, whenever I pick up my camera — and even as I move through my daily life — I hear her words:
Go back. Stay on the path.
Define your edges.
Foreground and background are of equal importance.
She was my teacher, my mentor, my hero. She was also my dear friend.
I met Mary Ellen 15 years ago when I interned for the summer at her New York City studio. After the summer was over she pulled me aside and asked if I would like to come and work for her as an assistant after I graduated. That is where our journey together began.
After graduation I moved to New York where I became Mary Ellen’s first Assistant. As Mary Ellen’s assistant for more than 10 years, I supported her on countless shoots across the United States and accompanied her on global shoots to India, Kenya, Australia, England, Germany, and Peru. In particular, Mary Ellen loved Oaxaca. She always said to me, “Chae, you have to come to Oaxaca with me.” And I did.
I returned every year, and I came to love it alongside her. Over multiple trips, Oaxaca brought us closer together as friends and allowed us to shoot together side-by-side. It was our magical place away from the business of photography where we could just be good friends.
In Oaxaca with Mary Ellen I grew as a photographer. My work evolved from strictly black-and-white documentary into the jazzy color-saturated Holga improvisations I embrace today. Mary Ellen expressed tremendous affection and admiration for my work in color with the plastic-lensed Holga, describing it as a "document of emotions" that allowed others to experience the world through my eyes.
Mary Ellen was my mentor, my confidant and my best friend. She taught me what the word “photographer” means and her death marked a new chapter in my personal and professional life.
Oaxaca will always be the place we shared and loved. Alongside my colleagues and friends in this exhibit, I lovingly dedicate these photographs to the life and living legacy of Mary Ellen.
I started photographing in high school, but I put my creative life on hold for years until I began studying with Mary Ellen Mark in Oaxaca 15 years ago.
I love photographing people and have learned that through consistency and trust I can explore the human condition, going beyond the photograph into the soul of the people I now call my friends.
I have returned year after year to the same places in Oaxaca, photographing the same people. What started out as a workshop 15 years ago has turned into a lifelong project for me. Going back to photography has changed the way I see the world and confirmed my place in it.
I strive to make sense visually and trust that the poetry will follow. My shooting is very basic – C41 film, natural light and an all-manual Leica. These images are seen through the camera, without manipulation in the darkroom or computer.
I’m forever grateful to Mary Ellen, who guided me and taught me the importance of going back year after year, and to the three families who have let me into their special lives.
Fifteen years ago, I took a workshop with Mary Ellen Mark in Oaxaca, Mexico.
For my first assignment, I was sent to a community center for children in a neighborhood called the Colonia Monte Alban. At 10 a.m., the children left and I stood there alone with my camera. Frustrated, I told Mary Ellen I wanted a new assignment. It wasn’t enough time with them. She told me to go back the following day to go with them when they home. I spoke no Spanish and looked like a tourist with a camera in hand.
I trailed behind Irene Lopez and her four children and she graciously let me into her home. This was the beginning of a long-term project, but even more so the beginning of a treasured friendship based on caring, trust and intimacy.
Mary Ellen constantly told me to “go back.” If there is one lesson I learned from her that resonated the most, it was this. After years of returning to this family, my camera has become invisible, secondary to documenting their extraordinary lives in the simple, quiet moments.
Mary Ellen Mark 2007 in Zaachila, Oaxaca
"Oaxaca, in the southern reaches of Mexico, is known throughout the world for its power to heighten the senses to an exquisite degree. To speak of the place as magical is nearly impossible to avoid. This quality of magic seems to be present everywhere, and all at once: in the light and colors, in the dizzying exuberance of nature, in the proximity of modern life to the ancient, in Oaxaca's food, craft, architecture, art, and music. And perhaps most important of all, in it's people." (taken from the book: XV años, a conversation with Mary Ellen Mark by Michael Sledge)
Mi Familia: my photo project
James Carbone captures the heart of Oaxaca with his images of a Mexican family whose love and loyalty persevere despite a lifetime of scavenging in a garbage dump.
Carbone began photographing Luis and Reina Lopez 18 years ago, when the youngest of the couple’s six children, Natanael, now 17, had not even been born. Year after year Carbone has photographed the family. His intimate pictures of the parents and siblings highlight family bonds more powerful than wretched poverty.
The Lopez family spends their days digging for plastic bottles on a hilltop mound of garbage four stories high. The heat can be stifling in the squalid environment – more than 100 degrees at times. The local dogcatcher litters the mound with canine corpses. A full days’ work might yield a harvest of a bag or two of bottles, which they roll down the hill and turn in for 20 pesos each – about $2.
Carbone’s years of perseverance and commitment earned the family’s trust, giving him access to the personal moments that weave together to form the tapestry of life. Luis is a protective father, but he’s also caring and tender, generous with kisses and squeezes for his wife and kids.
Mother Reina nurtures her brood, taking pride in cooking the most humble of meals – rice, beans and quesadillas. Her girls are blossoming into womanhood, modest and strong, yet flirtatious enough to make known their desire to start a family.
The children have never had anything, so there is little they want. Yet the family is working to escape their circumstances. Luis Alberto, 24, is going to school and wants to work on computers. And Luis, inspired by Carbone, has opened a small studio to photograph quinceneras and weddings.
Carbone’s life is a study of cultures that’s expressed through his passion for documentary photography. Bilingual, the son of a Mexican mother and Italian father who was a portrait photographer, Carbone was born in Los Angeles, Calif.
Carbone’s curiosity and passion to know the Lopez family have fueled his 18 year commitment to the project. His empathetic point of view, combined with his camera and his commitment, have allowed him to discover the family, connect with them, and capture the expressions and emotions of their world. Carbone studied with world renowned documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark for more than 15 years, taking more than 20 of her photography workshops.
I was obsessed with the craft of photography and I was at the hands of a master. My goal was to be as great as I could possibly be, learning and practicing the fundamentals of documentary photography, shooting only black-and-white film and using different camera formats. Mary Ellen was a special force of nature and she pushed me and worked with me and cared for me, as I did for her. It was a unique relationship, a relationship built on the love of photography.
Mary Ellen Mark on the streets of Oaxaca 2005
"I'm interested in reality, and I'm interested in survival. I'm interested in people who aren't the lucky ones, who maybe have a tougher time surviving, and telling their story."