“Every time she saw me she laughed,” says Mary Ellen Mark smiling at one of her large framed black and white photographs hanging in the National Museum gallery. “I guess she found me pretty funny.”
Mark’s latest photographic exhibition, titled “Extraordinary Child,” or “Undrabörn,” is a look at the lives of disabled children in Iceland. Mark, an American-born award-winning photographer and photojournalist, spent six-weeks in the fall and winter of 2006–2007 at Öskjuhlíðarskóli and Safamýrarskóli schools and the Lyngás daycare centre for the disabled, spending full days with the kids and often accompanying them home.
“I have a couple of pictures of her,” Mark continues, walking away from the picture of the smiling girl, titled Íris who always laughed when she saw my camera. “I like to show the different moods of the children because they’re just like every child. They have moods; they’re happy, they cry, they’re mischievous, they’re angelic, many different things. But these kids are mainly angelic. They’re really so sweet. And pure, actually.”
Mark’s past projects have included photographing homeless youths in Seattle, brothels in Mumbai, and the Indian Circus. Her latest work is another raw divulge into the human condition, into a world that Mark neither glorifies nor dramatises.
“This little girl, who is very profoundly disabled, she recognised her picture. She came and she went straight to her picture. The first thing I learned is that you never underestimate, no matter how seriously or how profoundly disabled these kids are, there’s a lot they understand and you can’t take it for granted.”
Walking around her exhibition Mark bears a delightful look of contentment on her face, looking at every photograph as though greeting old friends. The photographs show the children in their everyday environments: eating, swimming, playing in the snow, moments covering a full range of emotions, yet strung together by a quality of distinct humanness.
Accompanying Mark’s work are photographs of the bare school environment by Ívar Brynjólfsson, select artwork by the school’s pupils, as well as a documentary made by Mark’s husband Martin Bell about the life of Alexander Víðar Pálsson, one of the pupils at Öskjuhlíðarskóli.
According to Mark, one of the goals of the exhibit and of Margrét Hallgrímsdóttir, director of the National Museum who worked closely with Mark on the project, is to raise awareness of the kids and to encourage that a new communal school with improved facilities be built. Later that day, at the exhibit’s opening reception, the director of the Board of Education, Júlíus Vífill Ingvarsson, announced that a new school would be built in the near future that would combine the efforts of Öskjuhlíðarskóli and Safamýrarskóli.
“I think I have to show the happy moments but I also have to show the moments of real pain,” says Mark. “We try to kind of balance it so if you see a kid crying you also see another picture of another side to their personality where they’re laughing. Like Bragi here,” she says and stops in front of another beautifully simple photograph. “He really laughs if someone falls down.”
Extraordinary Child will be on display at the National Museum of Iceland through to January 27, 2008. For more information visit www.thjodminjasafn. Is