Photo Books

Photo Book Reviews: Ward 81 by Mary Ellen Mark

Ward 81 is Mary Ellen Mark's photo book of living in a psychiatric hospital for 36 days. The book contains haunting black and white images of women lounging around sterile rooms that look more like a prison then a hospital. 

Mark describes her goal as, "I wanted to help these women make contact with the outside world by letting them reach out and present themselves. I didn't want to use them. I wanted them to use me."

The essay that starts the book describes her stay and the women she met. The images afterward don't name the women in the images and forces you to match a face to the story. Who is described as stoic but violent and who is described as trying to rip her arms apart violently? 

According to Mark the women at the facility spent most of their time watching TV and smoking, and the longer Mark stayed at the hospital the larger of a toll it took on her. "It had happened to Mary Ellen also. Somebody told her that if it weren’t for the camera around her neck, you couldn’t tell her from the patients." 

The images in Ward 81 are poignant and personal. The woman in the bathtub who looks stuck in time. The peering eyes through the doors looking for a way to leave. The thousand yard stares to places far beyond the walls. If anything in the book sticks with me it's the eye's of the women who would rather be anywhere else but in Ward 81. 

In the years since these images were taken the state of mental health care in America have greatly declined. Due to cases of reported abuse at state facilities, like Ward 81, most have transitioned to private institutions and many all together have closed. Prisons, both private and public, and the streets have become the primary homes of people living with mental illness today. While Mark called for greater resources and money be spent on mental health in the 1980s the images in Ward 81 sadly now reflect better times for people living with mental illness. 

Ward 81 is a fantastic book in either hard cover or paper back. As a photographer you try and live by Robert Capa's oft quoted, "if you're photos aren't good enough, you're not close enough," but Mark took that to another level by entrenching herself with these women and living as they lived. Her closeness is not only that of space but in shared suffering. 

Highly Recommended.