Below is the whole article I wrote to go along with my images in the 400th edition of The Big Issue in Feb this year. I am putting it up on here for anyone who hasn't seen it as yet.
Making Her Own Mark
People say you should never meet your heroes; you’ll only be disappointed. Last year, Morganna Magee learnt this isn’t always true.
I am a professional photographer. I have moonlighted at newspapers, but my real passion is for social documentary photography – a series of photos on the same subject that aim to show a complete story. I relish opportunities to use my camera as a key that unlocks doors into people's lives and to celebrate the smaller stories that are often overlooked.
Sadly, it is also one of those photographic genres that cannot easily become a career. Photographing one story over a long period leads to little financial reward and can be emotionally draining. But when it is done properly, documentary photography is extraordinarily powerful.
Within the world of social documentary photography there is one artist whose work is generally regarded above all others. Mary Ellen Mark's career as a photographer has spanned close to 50 years, with settings for her images ranging from psychiatric wards to circuses. Born in Philadelphia, Mark’s career began in the 1960s – a golden era for photojournalism, when media outlets would compete for stories and images that showed readers how other people lived. From the beginning, Mark never shied away from photographing people far from the mainstream. As well as being commissioned by some of the most respected media outlets worldwide (such as Life and Rolling Stone magazines), Mark also worked on personal documentary projects that interested her.
Even before I became a professional photographer I had studied and admired her work. The truth is, her images shaped my decision to become one.
By the end of 2010, a turbulent year for me in many different ways, I had decided I needed to do something for my photography that would give me the direction I desperately needed. So I signed up for a 10-day documentary photography workshop that Mark herself runs in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Oaxaca is the name of both the state and city that lies south of Mexico City. It is known for its deep Indigenous roots; many areas outside the main city are populated by Indian people whose lives are largely untouched by the modern world. Mark’s course is held in main city, where Mexico's fusion of Catholic and pagan spirituality is demonstrated by frequent colourful parades and rituals.
Early last year, something odd started happening. The prospect of actually meeting the photographer whose work I hold in such high esteem became more and more petrifying as we got closer to March. I can feel socially inept even at the best of times, and although I understand that all of our heroes are only human, I was still genuinely concerned that nerves might make me so awkward my capacity to learn could be affected.
After a long flight and crossing several time-zones I finally arrived in Oaxaca the day before the course was due to start. I sat down in the hotel restaurant, trying to read the menu with blurry, sleep-deprived eyes. Then I looked up and saw a woman walking towards the restaurant. After immediately recognising her face from countless book sleeves I stood up, walked towards her, and nervously introduced myself. She smiled warmly, welcomed me, then dashed off to sort out some details for our course. With this introduction over, a sense of genuine excitement about what I could learn soon replaced my panic.
From then on, the course became less about my awkward awe of Mark and her work and more about the way she was teaching me to see. Students from all over the world – some professionals, some beginners, some dedicated amateurs – embarked on photographic assignments ranging from aged-care homes to slaughterhouses. Mark herself patiently encouraged and guided every student regardless of their skill level. Her intuitiveness was obvious not only in her approach to photography but also teaching. A lifetime spent meeting people from every imaginable background has given her the ability to set even the most nervous student at ease.
When I first showed her my portfolio of photo essays she asked me what I wanted to do with my career. I nervously replied: "I just want to keep telling people's stories." With that, I was assigned to start photographing at the Escuela Creer Down (a school for children with Down Syndrome). When I first entered the small brightly coloured school , I took my place in the class while being greeted by students ranging in age from 4 to 38. When the teacher introduced me to the class, I was met with lively replies from the students: “Australia? Kangaroo!!”. My poor Spanish seemed to charm them as I chatted away with the class.
One of the students, 10-year-old Luis Angel, sauntered into class late. It soon became clear to me he was the coolest kid in school. After sizing me up, he grabbed my hand and took me to play catch. I spent five days photographing Luis. I met his mother, who explained to me that although he has mild Down Syndrome he does not qualify for mainstream schooling. She is a single mother: Luis' father was a chef on a Mexican morning-TV program; he has not lived with the family since Luis was born. Although Luis seemed to me to be a happy child, life is undeniably hard for a child with his disability. Some aspects of his life were heartbreaking to see, as I spent more time with Luis and his mother in the studio apartment they shared I saw his mother had little patience for his joyful games. Both myself and my interpreter left the home feeling that life outside of school was not happy for Luis. Nevertheless, Luis had a definite tenderness to him: my photograph of him cradling a girl’s face was taken after she had been bullied by a classmate.
Determined to push my notions of what I am comfortable photographing, I spent one morning at a local orphanage, photographing children whose parents could not cope with their needs. During the 30-minute cab ride there, I steeled myself not to become emotional about the way these children lived. But my thoughts changed once I set foot onto the grounds: although some of the children were severely disabled, they were growing up in a loving environment and wanted for very little. The children were confused by my film camera – Mark’s students are encouraged to use film, as she does herself – and insisted on shooting movies on my iPhone, giggling at the tiny images they saw.
The lessons I learnt in Oaxaca went beyond photography. Immersing myself in the way some people live on the other side of the world has impacted on my day-to-day life. By its nature, photography is exploitative: a single moment in time is frozen to sum up the whole of a person and their life. But I now wonder whether that’s such a bad thing. I am beginning to believe what makes some photographers masters of their craft is simply that they have to courage to press the shutter where others would feel uncomfortable doing so. That one brilliant moment can immortalise someones circumstance beautifully and use that fleeting moment to make a powerful statement.
If someone is allowing me into their life and telling me their stories, I have a duty to tell that story in the clearest way possible. That can mean taking photos that may be hard to look at, but if that is someone's reality it deserves to be shown.
A few months after the workshop in Oaxaca, I travelled to New York City to be an intern at Mark’s studio in SoHo. Being close to some of the most celebrated photos of the last 40 years was a photo nerd's version of nirvana. But I found it was the stories that had been given less attention that impressed me the most. Looking through her digital catalogue I could see Mark's own warmth and sensitivity in her series about domestic abuse, disabled children and everyone she has photographed in her career.
After I returned to Australia, I found myself gravitating towards stories that I had previously hesitated to tackle. One is my series on motherhood, which aims to show the way women from very different backgrounds experience being parents. The women involved include an adoptive mother grateful for every day with her daughter; a mother of two small children who is recovering from breast cancer; also a young single mother trying to cope while her son is in hospital.
This project has felt to me like a collaboration: each woman has told me she wants to talk about being a mother; wants to have a representation of herself different to the smiling Kodak moment. That is one of the greatest lessons I learnt in Oaxaca: most people are just waiting for someone to listen to their stories, and it's a privilege to be able to tell it for them.
Now, when I look at Mary Ellen Mark's own photographs, I see beyond the composition and framing.
I see people looking back past the camera to the woman who cared enough to take an interest in them.
Morganna Magee is a Melbourne-based photographer. A previous series was featured in Ed#337. Motherhood is is at the fortyfive downstairs gallery, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne from 7-18 February. See also mnmphotography.com.au