Circumstantial Humanism: The Photographic Image

When I am going through a difficult situation I often turn to art to lift my spirits. For me powerful works of art challenge and often comfort me by reminding me that I am not alone in the essential qualities that make us human: fear, loss, joy, or desires that provide us with ability to sympathize with others and acknowledge our own humanity.

This past December my brothers and I sold our parent’s house that my dad had built in 1967, the only place I had really called “home” my entire life.  It was emotionally draining and after the closing I sought solace in the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida.

While there I viewed the exhibition Tiny Streetwise Revisited by photographer Mary Ellen Mark (1940-2015), whose works I have known for years but never really appreciated until that moment.  Her photographs always made me uneasy, perhaps because she consistently confronted difficult subject matter:  the Ku Klux Klan, the homeless, and runaways.  One of her bodies of work I know well is Ward 81 that documented women living in the Oregon State Hospital, an institution for the mentally ill. I find the series intrusive, to a point that, for me, crossed ethical boundaries because Mark lived on the ward for thirty-six days while documenting very intimate details of the patients’ lives in a way I felt took advantage of their circumstances in life.

Mary Ellen Mark 03 - Mona, angry, Ward 81, Salem, Oregon, 1976-1Mary Ellen Mark 02 - Mary Frances in the tub, Ward 81, Salem, Oregon, 1976

Mona, angry, Ward 81, 1976                                          Mary Frances in the tub, Ward 81, 1976

With my knowledge of her past works, I skeptically entered the museum to view the exhibition of “Tiny”, a girl Mark had met in 1983 on the streets of Seattle. At the time, Tiny was thirteen years old, had run away from home and her alcoholic mother, and was surviving on the streets as a prostitute. Mark kept in touch with Tiny and photographed her on and off for thirty years. Tiny allowed Mark to document the intimate details of her experiences: becoming pregnant at age sixteen, becoming a crack addict at age eighteen, and having ten children by the end of the series.

I found myself in the museum viewing the hardships and joys of life that Tiny experienced, while being confronted by the emotions of letting my family home go and recognizing in the larger context of human existence my losses were quite small. Although Tiny is one year older than me, our life circumstances were extremely different – but strangely enough the photographs of her allowed me to confront and accept my own sense of loss.

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Tiny at the amusement part with “Horsey”, 1983                              Tiny crying and smoking, 2004

Photography is a powerful tool for communicating the vastly different experiences of the human condition because of the “realness” of the image. Photographers approach their work with a variety of intentions, be it formal aesthetics, expressionism, instrumentalist agendas, or with the goal of realistic documentation of the world around them. My interpretations of the works below are that the photographers wanted to communicate humanism through the circumstances of the subject’s existence; the struggles of being human and the cruelty of life, sometimes as consequences of their own choices and sometimes through circumstances they had no control over.


Huynh Cong (Nick) Ut, Children Fleeing a Napalm Strike, 1972

Nick Ut’s photograph of children who had just been sprayed with napalm during the Vietnam War led to public outcry among American citizens who had grown tired of lengthy involvement in that war. The photograph demonstrated that government officials were not being truthful. The horrors of war were realized through the screaming children and the little girl who had ripped her napalm saturated clothes off while soldiers casually walked down the road. This photograph was able to sway public opinion away from support for the war.


Donna Ferrato, Lisa, 1991                                                                Donna Ferrato, Hedda, 1991

Donna Ferrato’s intimate series, Living with the Enemy, is a collection of photographs meant to draw attention to domestic violence. The series followed women who were in abusive relationships through their daily struggles: from the physical and psychological injuries of attack, family dynamics with violent partners and the children caught in the middle, to police intervention and legal actions taken. The book of these images begins with a photograph of two coffins for a mother and daughter who had been murdered by the mother’s boyfriend. The series of photographs then portrays portraits of the women throughout their daily struggles.


James Nachtwey, Hutu liberated from a death camp, Nyanza, Rwanda, 1994      

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James Nachtwey, Bosnia, 1993-94)                                             

James Nachtwey’s prolific career encompasses many conflict zones including South Africa, Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Rwanda. Although known as a war photographer, Nachtwey refers to himself as an “anti-war photographer” by highlighting the atrocities human beings have inflicted upon one another with the goal of learning from the past: “I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.” Nachtwey’s excruciatingly detailed photographs of human misery can be very difficult to view however are necessary to future aspirations of human dignity and equality for all.

Nicola and his dog, Bethlehem, 2004

Gillian Laub, Nicola and His Dog, Bethlehem, 2004        


Anna with her husband and son, Netanya, 2005

Gillian Laub, Anna with her husband and son, Netanyam, 2005

In 2002 Gillain Laub went to Israel “during a particularly violent time of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” She wanted to photograph “the complexity of individual lives, but not in the way people and events or the bloody carnage on either side made the headline news. Instead (she) was interested in the enigmatic spirit of determination, the optimism of individuals living through these events.” The body of work that followed, Testimony, is a diverse group of photographs of “Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, displaced Lebanese families, and Palestinians – each personally affected by the geopolitical context in which they live.” The highly saturated color photographs give almost a surrealist feel to the photographs, possibly because the level of emotion and physical injuries of many of the subjects can be extremely difficult to view. The dreamlike qualities are something I most likely project onto the images to make them bearable.

Pieter Hugo Abdulai Yahaya2

Pieter Hugo, Abdulai Yahaya, Agbogbloshie Market, Ghana, 2009-2010             

Pieter Hugo Naasra Yeti

Pieter Hugo, Naasra Yeti, Agbogloshie Market, Ghana, 2009-2010)

Pieter Hugo’s series Permanent Error not only documents the e-waste that is shipped to and disposed of outside Ghana’s capital, Accra, but also the lives of workers who dismantle and burn the outdated technology. Cattle and humans live among the squalor that has become the workplace for “thousands of disenfranchised men and boys, many of them orphans” who survive recycling whatever precious materials they can acquire from the items. The photographs document the desolate waste of the environment and human potential by highlighting the trappings of poverty that prevent the subjects from escaping this land of toxic waste.


This a guest post from Rebecca Miller, Associate Professor of Photography at Drury University


Tiny Streetwise Revisted, Mary Ellen Mark, Aperture Foundation, 2015

Living with the Enemy, Donna Ferrato, Aperture Foundation, 1991

Magnum, Phaidon Press Inc., 2000

Inferno, James Nachtwey, Phaidon Press Inc., 1999

Testimony, Gillian Laub, Aperture Foundation, 2007

Permanent Error, Pieter Hugo, Prestel Publishing Ltd., 2011