Tag Archives: documentary

Our Oaxaca / Nuestra Oaxaca: An Exhibition

OAXACA, Mexico – The late documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark had a 20-year love affair with Oaxaca, an affection she demonstrated in the many indelible images she made here of children, animals and regional rituals, but also in the passion she imparted and instilled in the hundreds of amateur and professionals who attended her biannual workshops here.

After Mary Ellen died in the spring of 2015, several of us who have become friends through knowing her and working with her in Oaxaca decided to return to Mexico together each year to honor Mary Ellen and continue the projects she had helped us shape.

Knowing of our desire to keep Mary Ellen’s Oaxaca spirit alive, the Centro Fotográfico Manuel Álvarez Bravo (where Mary Ellen had convened her workshops) invited seven of us to show our images from Oaxaca. It was a bittersweet invitation – on the one hand an honor to participate in an exhibition at Álvarez Bravo, on the other another reminder of how much each of us miss Mary Ellen, as a teacher, as an editor, as a friend.

After much planning by the staff of Álvarez Bravo (and much patience and tolerance by its director, Adriana Chávez, for our lack of understanding of the metric system and constant mangling of the Spanish language), the show opens this Friday, Jan. 20, and will feature photographs by Björn Árnason (Iceland); Ina Bernstein, Chae Kihn and Jody Watkins (New York); and Lori Barra, James Carbone and me (California).

The evening of the opening there will be a reception at 7 p.m. (I will be there and I hope my friends in Oaxaca can come.) On Feb. 25 from 6 to 8 p.m. Álvarez Bravo will graciously host an event with all seven us.

Below, in English and in Spanish, is the introductory text to the exhibit, as well as a gallery of the photos I have in the show.

Exhibition Introduction: Our Oaxaca

Mary Ellen Mark brought us together. Most of us 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.

***

Introdución a la Exposición: Nuestra Oaxaca

Mary Ellen Mark nos unió. Ella fue la razón por la que llegamos a Oaxaca. A través de ella, nos hicimos amigos. Debido a ella, nos convertimos en mejores fotógrafos. Pensando en ella, regresamos – para seguir las obras que empezamos aquí, para alimentar las relaciones que hemos formado con madres, padres y niños oaxaqueños, para hacernos los fotógrafos que ella creía que podríamos ser, para honrar su pasión y, quizás, encontrar esperanza e inspiración en esta.

Más que nada, Mary Ellen creía en el poder de la imagen singular. “Me gusta una imagen que resalte individualmente, que surta efecto sola,” dijo ella. “ … Es difícil. Si sacas un par de buenas fotos cada año, estas haciendo muy bien. Es difícil sacar una gran foto. Muy difícil. Cuanto más trabajas en ello, más te das cuenta de lo difícil que es.”

Como fotógrafa, Mary Ellen abrazaba la autenticidad implacable. Como amiga, nos envolvía en la generosidad. Como maestra, exigía mucho y animaba aún más.

Mary Ellen insistía en que sus alumnos se adhirieran a los mismos estándares altos en los que ella se mantenía. Dos años antes de su muerte en 2015, le dijo a un entrevistador que le había preguntado a ella como su fotografía se había desarrollado durante su carrera de 40 años: “No estoy segura de que haya cambiado mucho. … Solo sigo tratando de hacer fotos que sean potentes y verídicas – grandes fotos. Quizás mis estándares sean mas altos. Estoy menos satisfecha (ahora) con lo que hago. Quiero ir más allá. Alcanzar más allá.”

Vaya más allá. Busque la verdad. Sea honesto. Estos eran los atributos de Mary Ellen – como una fotógrafa y como un ser humano – y estas son las características por las cuales ella juzgaba su obra y a las cuales noså urgía aspirar.

Algunos de nosotros somos fotógrafos profesionales, otros no los somos. Algunos de nosotros hemos estado sacando fotos de las mismas familias por más de una década, otros estamos atraídos por la espontaneidad de las calles. Algunos de nosotros usamos la cámara para documentar, otros preferimos interpretar. Todos nosotros estamos agradecidos de haber conocido a Mary Ellen, de haber trabajado con ella y de haber estado entre sus amigos. En nuestra obra, solamente podemos esperar emular a ella, cada uno en su propia estilo.

Mary Ellen dijo una vez,” Fotografíe el mundo como es. Nada es más interesante que la realidad. Estas imágenes son nuestra realidad, nuestra Oaxaca.

Mary Ellen & the Book

Mary Ellen Mark The book from the last Oaxaca workshop arrived the other say. The cardboard package was on the stairway landing inside the front gate when I arrived home from an afternoon shoot. I took the book inside to the kitchen, slit the packing tape with a paring knife and opened the wrapping.

There was Mary Ellen on the cover.

In the photograph she is seated, facing to her right. A dog lies at her feet, his head raised and cocked slightly, his eyes looking into the camera. A large shawl covers most of Mary Ellen’s body. Only her head, her braids, a bit of her legs and her feet are visible. A large lump appears beneath the shawl on the left of her body. It is the cast on her broken wrist. She wears sandals. Her toenails are painted black. Her feet appear to be large for such a tiny person.

It is a somber image. I would have said that even had she not died just three months after the picture was made. She isn’t smiling, but she rarely did for photographs, so it isn’t that. It’s the tightness of her face, the downward slant of the corners of her mouth, the hunch of her shoulders below the shawl. They create an uncharacteristic appearance of smallness for a woman whose personality was as large as the life she led.

In the photograph I see the sickness. I see the frailty. I see weight she carried, the knowledge that her time was running out and that despite all her fierce will and immense soul – the characteristics that defined her – she could not prevent it from doing so.

I touched the picture with my right hand and cried.

***

The truth is I didn’t buy the book until after Mary Ellen died. The February workshop in Oaxaca didn’t end well for me – nor for Mary Ellen – and when the workshop organizers sent word that book was finished I hadn’t cleansed enough of the bad feelings to want to buy it.

Tim Porter, Mary Ellen MarkThe workshop wrapped up on Wednesday night and most everyone flew home the next day. Mary Ellen was there an extra day and I was staying through the weekend to do more photography. I planned to ride to the airport with her on Friday morning to help her navigate the craziness in the terminal should she need it.

On Thursday morning, I went to an elementary school outside of Oaxaca to photograph a teacher, a young Mexican woman who had returned home to Oaxaca after living illegally through her adolescence in South Carolina, a placed she considered so racist and intolerant that she chose to return to Mexico. After cabbing back into town, I was walking through the zócalo in the mid-afternoon en route to my apartment when I spotted Mary Ellen seated on the patio of her hotel. Before her on a table were many of the contents of the two shopping bags she carried with her – papers, folders, receipts, etc. She was quite upset.

“I was robbed,” she told me after I sat down next to her. She explained that 30 minutes earlier while shopping she accidentally left a wallet containing a sizable amount of Mexican pesos on the counter of a store. After leaving the store and discovering that the wallet was missing, Mary Ellen sent her assistant back to retrieve the wallet. It was gone.

Mary Ellen was enraged. She wanted to call the police. I won’t come back here, she said. I’ve had it with Mexico. The people can’t be trusted. The city has changed so much. It’s not the same.

They were harsh words and they saddened me. I knew she was sick. I knew her health might not allow her to return for the workshop she’d already planned for later in the year. If this trip were to be the last of her two-decade love affair with Oaxaca, I didn’t want it to end so bitterly.

I went to the store. Mary Ellen’s assistant was there, arguing with the clerk and the owner, who, coincidentally, I had known for a couple of years. The assistant, a young Mexican guy, was sure the clerk had taken the money (I know my people, he told me later, outside the store.) I wasn’t yet convinced. Mary Ellen always seemed to be looking for things – a folder, a pair of glasses, something. It seemed reasonable that she might have misplaced the wallet elsewhere.

The shop owner let us look behind the counter, in shelves and drawers and all around the store. Nothing. I returned to Mary Ellen’s hotel. She hadn’t calmed down and continued to talk about getting the police involved. Don’t, I told her. Don’t. This is Mexico. It won’t go well. She ate dinner that night with a friend and I didn’t see her again until 6:30 the next morning, when we met in the lobby of her hotel.

A night’s sleep hadn’t helped. “She stole it. I know,” said Mary Ellen right off.  After a night of thinking about it, I still wasn’t sure even though the amount of cash in the wallet equaled a month’s pay or more for a shop clerk. It would be hard to resist. We’ll never know, I told her; you’ve got to let it go.

The driver arrived, someone Mary Ellen had used for years. Two days earlier I’d heard him and Mary Ellen agree on a price to take the two of us to the airport and then give me a ride back into town. Now he wanted to charge us double because of the return trip. It was a standard tactic in Mexico, but it further upset Mary Ellen. No, she said. No. Her mood worsened. There’s no loyalty here, she said, no loyalty.

At the airport, all went smoothly. Mary Ellen and I hugged goodbye. After I watched Mary Ellen clear security, I got in the car for the 20-minute return trip into the city. I never saw her again.

***

A couple of days later I flew home to San Francisco in my own negative mood. I was disappointed in my work. I didn’t like the pictures I’d made. I was exhausted from the heat and had lost five pounds from walking miles every day and I couldn’t see the value of it in the photographs. They were too ordinary, too magazine-y as Mary Ellen would say. I felt like I would never make a good picture.

This state of mind is important in order to understand what happened next. After each workshop with Mary Ellen, there is a flurry of Internet activity among its participants, especially on Facebook. Groups are formed, photos are shared and quips are exchanged. Less than a week after I returned to California, one of the photographers from the workshop posted some photos that deeply disturbed me. I won’t say what the subject was, where they were shot or who made them, but I thought they were a violation of privacy and a breach of trust.

I can be overly opinionated and judgmental – not my finer characteristics – and the pictures outraged me. They hit the sweet spot of disdain I have for privileged First World travelers who come to Mexico and treat the poor people they encounter with (what I see as) disrespect. Anyone who knows me has heard the rant: They can’t speak the language, they enter people’s homes without so much as a please and thank you, they show up at sacred ceremonies and snap away like they’re photographing a Little League parade.

I’ve done it, too. I plead guilty. But I do it less and less. I am working on patience and intimacy. I am OK with spending the whole day with someone and not taking a single picture. I would rather – even if my success rate is low – be a better human being than a great (or even a mediocre) photographer. Thank you, Mary Ellen, for teaching me these things.

In short, I was angry when I saw the photographs. I wrote an email to the photographer. I tried to be polite and persuasive, but I probably sounded condemning and abrasive (see above). The photographer disagreed with me. The photos stayed online.

It seemed so wrong to me that it made me question my own photographs. Am I exploiting people? Am I betraying their trust? I still don’t know the answers to those questions, but what I did know was that I was done with workshops. No more, I told my wife, a former journalist who had lived and worked in Mexico. No more photography – or Oaxaca – with others. I would continue my relationship with Mary Ellen, travel to New York to visit her, nourish the friendships I’ve made through her and work in Oaxaca on my own. But no more groups, not with anyone.

This was my mindset when the workshop book came out. I looked at it online, flipped through the digital pages and saw only the negative.

I didn’t see the faces of my friends, I didn’t see the effort and creativity of the other photographers, I didn’t see the dinners with Mary Ellen and her posse of fabulous women, I didn’t see the hopes and hardships of the families I’d visited, I didn’t see the drunken, almost desperate frivolity of the transvestites I’d come to know, I didn’t even see the sweetness of the abandoned children I’d photographed for two years. I only saw what I’d failed to do. I only saw how others had disappointed me and how I had disappointed myself. I didn’t buy the book. I didn’t want those memories.

When Mary Ellen died, I, like every other photographer she had ever helped, was heartbroken. I wanted more of her. I spent hours online looking at her work. Eventually, I looked through the workshop book again. This time it was different. I only saw her.

There she was surrounded by her assistants – steady Cristina, mercurial Beto, thoughtful Ina, energetic Candy, and earnest Paula. There she was in her photographs of the participants, some of whom I feel closer to than friends I’ve had for years. There she was in her photograph of me, I looking small, old and awkward. The dog looked better.

There she was in the work of the photographers – the girl in the locker by Alejandra; the oily men against the wall by Bjorn; the gauzy Holga dog by Chae; the beautiful image of the young orphaned boy in a box by Grant (who worked so hard); the boy in the shelter hanging upside down off a concrete wall by Ina; the dog at the dump by James; the hands of a mother cupping her disabled son’s head by Jody (who has been photographing this child for years); the drummer boy by Lori; and the girl in her communion dress against a blue wall by Julia. And so many others.

Now, I see everything I didn’t see in the book the first time. I see goodness and humanity and passion. I see innocence and experience. I see admiration and awe (by the photographers of Mary Ellen) and I see loyalty and relentless encouragement (by her to them). And, I see myself, still uncertain at this age, still wanting to be more, still dissatisfied, but still trying.

I think that’s what she saw in me. I certainly see that in her.

How I Met Mary Ellen Mark

The first time Mary Ellen Mark and I spoke she came at me like a ravenous attack dog. “Tell me who said that,” she barked into the phone. “I want to know who said that.”

The spark for those words was struck several weeks earlier when I was in Oaxaca, Mexico, where my wife and I have a house, and where we were visiting friends.

Mary Ellen Mark, Tim PorterOne evening, one of those friends, a bookstore owner, and I, went to IAGO (Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca) to see an exhibition by New York graphic artist Peter Kuper, who had lived in Oaxaca with his family during the political turbulence and violence of 2006 and had written an illustrated book about the experience (Diario de Oaxaca). The exhibition consisted of drawings from that book.

At the gallery entrance, I saw a poster advertising an upcoming workshop with Mary Ellen. I was astounded. She was my photographic hero and, in fact, the reason I took up photography (see that story here). Oaxaca was my adopted second home. I’d had no idea that two such significant components of my life overlapped.

I mentioned this coincidence to my friend. As a journalist, first a photographer and then later a reporter and an editor, I had dismissed photo workshops as expensive vacations for wannabes who were transported en masse from one location to another to photograph wildlife or indigenous people. I already detested the American and European tourists who stuck their big cameras in the faces of the Oaxaca’s impoverished street children, snapping their photos as if they were tourist attractions like Monte Alban or colorful rugs. I couldn’t imagine hanging out with a group of well-heeled (the only types who can normally afford workshop fees), wide-eyed amateurs ooh-ing and aw-ing over “colorful” poor people.

Still, I was intrigued. This was Mary Ellen Mark. The real deal. The icon. Surely any workshop run by her would be different.

The curator of the exhibition was the wife of a well-known Mexican photographer. After introducing me to her, my friend mentioned that I, too, was a photographer and was considering taking Mary Ellen’s workshop.

Immediately, she told me, “You don’t want to do that. You’re a professional and it’s for beginners.” I was surprised by the vehemence of her dismissal. Really, I asked? “It’s a joke,” she said.

A week or so later, back in California, I still couldn’t shake the dissonance of the experience. How, I wondered, could such an ethical, humane photographer like Mary Ellen Mark be involved with a “joke”? Yet, I didn’t want to waste the money nor the time. Even worse, I didn’t want to participate in something that would ruin the regard I had for Mary Ellen.

I dithered. I fretted. I finally called the workshop organizer in Miami, Photo XPeditions, and spoke with Herzen Cortes, its founder. Tell me, I said, what’s deal? Can someone like me – meaning a crusty, somewhat accomplished professional (albeit not as a documentary photographer) and a Oaxacan veteran benefit from this? Is it really for amateurs?

Herzen, a good guy, pitched me hard, but he was pretty much giving me what was on the web site. I remained hesitant and told him so. Then he said, “Well, would you like to talk to Mary Ellen?”

Sure, I said, and hung up thinking like that will ever happen.

Twenty minutes later the phone rang. It was Mary Ellen, calling from New York. Almost without prelude, she got right to it. “Tell me who said that,” she said. “I want to know who said that.”

She caught me off guard. First, I was surprised she called at all. Second, when she said who she was I expected a persuasive tone, not a combative one. I didn’t know what to say and certainly didn’t want to get in the middle of something. “I can’t tell you,” I said. “That seems wrong.”

“OK,” she said, “all I can tell you is that whoever said that is a fucking liar.”

Boom! There it was. All the passion, all the fire, all the ferocity I had associated with her. In that instant, I decided: I was going.

She went on to explain about the workshop, about how some photographers have come for years to work on long-term projects, about how other journalists have come, about how it was designed for people to do personal work and not travel about in a herd.

That was all unnecessary. She had me at a “fucking liar.” I loved her from that moment on. Loved her completely.

Six weeks later, I met Mary Ellen for the first time during the workshop’s traditional opening dinner in a restaurant overlooking the zócalo in Oaxaca. “Hi,” I said, “I’m Tim Porter.”

She smiled, took my hand in hers, leaned in and said, “Before we’re done, you’re going to tell me who it was.”

And several nights later, over mescal, I did.