Behind Mary Ellen Mark's Final Assignment

Powerful human stories from New Orleans 10 years after Katrina

Sam and Ben Will, 2015.© Mary Ellen Mark for CNN
Thom and mom at home, 2015.© Mary Ellen Mark for CNN
Drew Brees on the practice field, 2015.© Mary Ellen Mark for CNN

“She did laps around people half her age and twice her health,” says Ed O’Keefe, Vice President of CNNMoney and CNN Politics. “She wasn't well, but it didn't show.”

This past April, with the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaching, CNN commissioned the legendary Mary Ellen Mark to travel to New Orleans and shoot portraits for an expansive multimedia feature with a production crew of over 25 journalists.

"We knew she could capture the rebirth of an American city, and a people surviving, thriving, growing, changing," O'Keefe tells American Photo. "She made the world look at people from whom we normally turn away. She found beauty in scars, transcended race, and identity. Her images were haunting, timeless, and stirred with emotion."

CNN Digital Director of Photography Simon Barnett approached Mark with the idea, and to their delight, she agreed. During pre-production, “she was classic: challenging, whip smart, provocative and uncompromising,” O’Keefe says, even though she had told Barnett she was sick. “We pressed forward; she wanted to work, she wanted to photograph.”

I would die if I had to be confined. I don't want to feel that I'm missing out on experiencing as much as I can. For me, experiencing is knowing people all over the world and being able to photograph. — Mary Ellen Mark

Mark, known for her rigorous vision, worked under what producer Louis Foglia called "brutal" heat, "moving sunlight and cloud cover," during her first trip down there, doing 18 shoots in just seven days across New Orleans and into Mississippi. She photographed twins borne from embryos rescued from a flooded hospital, members of a community-organized open-air boxing club, and first responders, among others.

A second round of shooting was scheduled for early June. Barnett heard from Mark’s team that she was in the hospital, O’Keefe says, “but she was looking at images and planning.”

On May 25, 2015 news broke that Mark had passed away, at age 75, in New York.

Amidst an outpour of condolences, tributes and eulogies, CNN premiered the work at the Look3 Festival of the Photograph in Virginia in mid-June. The multimedia feature went live on their website this morning and an exhibition of the work at Governors Island in New York, produced in collaboration with the International Center of Photography, is scheduled to run through September 27.

“It was a rare and special assignment—for all of us,” O’Keefe says, “and hopefully Mary Ellen as well.”

Mark, known for her rigorous vision, worked under what producer Louis Foglia called "brutal" heat, "moving sunlight and cloud cover," during her first trip down there, doing 18 shoots in just seven days across New Orleans and into Mississippi. She photographed twins borne from embryos rescued from a flooded hospital, members of a community-organized open-air boxing club, and first responders, among others.

A second round of shooting was scheduled for early June. Barnett heard from Mark’s team that she was in the hospital, O’Keefe says, “but she was looking at images and planning.”

On May 25, 2015 news broke that Mark had passed away, at age 75, in New York.

Amidst an outpour of condolences, tributes and eulogies, CNN premiered the work at the Look3 Festival of the Photograph in Virginia in mid-June. The multimedia feature went live on their website this morning and an exhibition of the work at Governors Island in New York, produced in collaboration with the International Center of Photography, is scheduled to run through September 27.

“It was a rare and special assignment—for all of us,” O’Keefe says, “and hopefully Mary Ellen as well.”

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