Mary Ellen Mark brought us together. Most of use came to Oaxaca because of her. Through her we became friends. Because of her we became better photographers. With her in mind, we come back – to pursue the work we started here, to nurture the relationships we’ve made with local mothers and fathers and children, to become the photographers she believed we could be, to honor her passion and, perhaps, to find hope and inspiration in it. More than anything else, Mary Ellen believed in the potency of the singular image. “I like a picture to stand out individually, to work on its own,” she said. “... It’s hard. If you get a couple of good pictures a year, you’re doing very well. It’s hard to get a great picture. Really hard. The more you work at it, the more you realize how hard it is.” As a photographer, Mary Ellen embraced relentless authenticity. As a friend, she wrapped us in generosity. As a teacher, she demanded much and encouraged even more. Mary Ellen held her students to the same lofty standards by which she lived. Two years before her death in 2015, she told an interviewer who had asked how her photography had evolved during her 40-year career. “I’m not sure it has changed that much,” she answered. “… I’m still just trying to make powerful and truthful photographs — great photographs. Perhaps my standards are higher. I’m less satisfied with what I do. I want to go further. Reach further.”Go further. Seek truth. Be honest. These were Mary Ellen’s qualities – as a photographer and as a person – and these are the characteristics by which she judged her work and to which she urged us to aspire. Some of us are professional photographers, some are not. Some of us have been photographing the same families for a decade or more, some are drawn to the spontaneity of the streets. Some of us use the camera to document, some of us prefer to interpret. All of us are grateful to have known Mary Ellen, to have worked with her and to have been counted among her friends. In our work, we can only hope to emulate her, each of us in our own way.
Mary Ellen once said, “Photograph the world as it is. Nothing's more interesting than reality.” These photographs are our reality, our Oaxaca.