The girl named Rajni performs in stockings that are torn and tattered, a sign she's from the lowest rung of India's economic ladder. The other girls in the photos are from the same rung, but they say they're happy. Back at home, they'd be begging in the street, or beaten by their parents, or forced into an arranged marriage. Instead, the girls work in a circus, bending their legs in unbelievable ways, riding elephants, and wearing makeup like Bollywood actresses. Considering the alternative, wouldn't you be happy, too?
Mary Ellen Mark's "Indian Circus" photos have never left my mind. I first saw them 20 years ago, and when I encountered them again at Jenkins Johnson Gallery, where they're thankfully on full display, I was reminded that Mark is a humanist photographer of the highest order, someone who will sometimes work for years to gain the trust of her subjects before capturing moments that are spontaneous and altogether stirring.
Over five decades, she has documented prostitution, homelessness, mental institutionalization, refugee camps, and circuses. Many of the people in her photos — the whores, the nuns, the circus girls — do things that the rest of us will never experience. We never want to be locked up in a psych ward or sleep in a hospice where the smells of death are overwhelming. Mark spent time in both.
And wherever she goes, she captures both dignity and disintegration. When Mark was in India in the 1980s and early '90s, the circus itself was dying, the victim of a cultural shift that saw Indian audiences move their allegiance from the big top to the small screen. TV helped kill Rajni's profession in India. Mark knew that at the time, and she seems wistful as she reflects on the "Indian Circus" images that helped cement her professional reputation.
"That was a beautiful time for me," Mark says in a phone interview from New York, where she's based. "I'm just glad I had a chance to document it when it was such a beautiful thing to see."
Soon after her project ended, India's government banned many animals from circuses. Last year, the government passed a law prohibiting children under 14 from performing in them. Now, just a handful of traveling circuses exist in India. The vintage prints at Jenkins Johnson Gallery are a poignant glimpse at people who were forced by circumstance to earn a living as entertainers. Mark once said she lives to photograph the unfamous, the people who don't have a voice and need one.
A contributing photographer to the New Yorker, Mark has won nearly every major photography honor and award (including a Guggenheim and three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts), but she's paid a professional price for continuing to take images of people on society's margins. New York's Museum of Modern Art, she says, snubbed her from its 2010-2011 exhibit, "Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography."
"I don't think of what's going to sell, and I've suffered from it," Mark says. "I'm still interested in humanity and people, even though the art world is not. They don't seem to think that photos of people or humanistic pictures merit as art. But I disagree. And I'm certainly not going to change what I do."