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In a photograph titled “Ward 81”, a woman sits on a bed. She is young, a teenager. She sits cross-legged and wears her clothes and hair like a teenager would. The wall behind this teenage girl is covered in pictures. The pictures, magazine cutouts, are taped to the wall and some of the edges have been carefully rounded with scissors. There are pictures of animals and a picture of a tree. Below a picture of the Mona Lisa the name BRENDA is written in marker. In this room that could belong to any teenager, the walls are strangely close. The bed is pushed up to the radiator and the metal headboard is too white and plain. The young woman’s eyes are blank—one eye tilts toward her nose. Her left arm is outstretched bearing the evidence of self-inflicted wounds and on the wall above the radiator, also written in marker, are the words, “I wish to die.”

This photograph was taken by Mary Ellen Mark, who died on May 25. Mark was adamant that her work be called documentary photography. “I’m a documentary photographer,” she told Bomb magazine in 1989. “That’s what I’ve always wanted to be; that’s where my heart and soul is.” The word “document,” when applied to photographs, conveys the sense of proof, evidence, testimony. A document is an affirmation of the subject being documented — a proof of that subject’s existence, if nothing else. A documentary photograph says, “here is the object or person that existed when this photograph was taken.”
More… “Monsters and Men”

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.

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