Haunting, powerful, evocative, important—make time this winter to take in the Mary Ellen Mark: Ward 81 exhibit at Toronto Metropolitan University’s The Image Centre.
The must-see show opens January 25 and sheds light on the invisible lives of women institutionalized for mental illness by the renowned American documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark (1940-2015).
Mark first met her subjects in 1975 while working on the film set for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Deeply impacted by the women, she returned a year later, moved into the locked wing at Oregon State Hospital, and worked closely with licensed therapist and writer Karen Folger Jacobs to document the women living there. The resulting project—published as the seminal book Ward 81 in 1979—was a nuanced and compelling portrayal of female psychiatric treatment in the United States.
“Mary Ellen Mark’s willingness to immerse herself in her subjects’ lives and to show them empathy, care and dedication allowed her to create extraordinary portraits that were also candid and relatable,” says IMC Exhibition Curator, Gaëlle Morel. “We’ve brought together Mark’s Ward 81 photographs, which are striking black-and-white images with an almost cinematic quality, with many of the ‘behind-the-scenes’ materials that offer a fuller picture of the project.”Mary Ellen Mark: Ward 81 presents photographs, audio recordings and archival materials—many of which are being shown for the first time—to offer an in-depth view of Mark’s experimental and groundbreaking approach to documentary photography.
Through photography and recorded interviews, Mark and Jacobs hoped to portray the women of Ward 81 as complex individuals with multifaceted personalities, bringing attention to their daily life, their private thoughts, intimate interactions, and intense medical treatments. “I wanted to help these women make contact with the outside world by letting them reach out and present themselves,” Mark famously said, after the project was completed.
Mental health is still a relatively new field, and yet in any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians experience mental illness. Despite many successful awareness and educational campaigns, stigma is still a major issue. In terms of treating mental illness, there is still much about the brain we don’t know. The Mary Ellen Mark: Ward 81 exhibit raises vital conversations about the way we treat patients with mental illness, both then and now.Mary Ellen Mark: Ward 81 runs from January 25 to April 1, 2023. For more info and gallery hours, head to The Image Centre website. Don’t miss this one.