by Antonio Dileo
In July of 1983, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, along with journalist Cheryl McCall, published in Life magazine an article titled “Streets of the Lost.” The eye-opening piece took readers to the streets of Seattle and followed the plight of homeless youth. Mark and McCall aimed to show that a city deemed one of the most livable cities in the U.S. (even pre-Amazon and pre-Microsoft) is not immune to the poverty that afflicts other cities throughout the nation. Aided by McCall’s narrative description, it was Mark’s photography that captured the true essence and put a human face on street youth. The following year, Mark and her husband, director Martin Bell (best known for American Heart, a movie also based on his experiences with this documentary), released the Academy Award-nominated Streetwise, based on the same Life article.
Streetwise brings Mark’s visual narrative even more to life, never watering anything down. It follows nine of the contacts Mark made during her time in Seattle, most notably a 13-year-old prostitute by the name of Erin Charles, aka “Tiny.” Tiny lived with her alcoholic mother, who was indifferent to her daughter’s line of work. A few others they follow include 16-year-old DeWayne (a young street hustler whose father is in jail; he wants to live, like almost all of them, a better life away from the streets) and Rat, a dumpster diver. It chronicles their daily survival amongst the streets of downtown Seattle, including scavenging for food in dumpsters, fighting, visits to a health center, and hustling for money.
Mark, known for her humanistic photography, released an accompanying photo book in 1988 documenting the movie’s filming. Streetwise, over 30 years after its release, continues to have impact. Mark, who passed away last May at the age of 75, published a follow up book titled Streetwise : Tiny Revisited. A photo exhibit based on the book is now on display at Norton Museum in West Palm Beach, Florida. It follows Tiny’s life from back then at the way to where she is at currently. Bell will be releasing the movie version TINY: The Life of Erin Blackwell.
The release of Streetwise shows, then and now, the power that the documentary has. It awakened people and showed that even a sleepy, little port city was not unscathed by urban problems like homelessness that major metropolises face. And, at the core of it, some of those who are suffering are youth. Those kids that Mark and Bell followed made you can about their plight, rather than blow them off as many do in everyday life. It must be noted also that this documentary was released during the Reagan era, whose overall idea at the time was that many who were homeless were homeless by choice. Streetwise helped to show that these young kids scrounging for food in dumpsters, drifting from place to place, hustling, and doing whatever it took to survive, were flesh and blood human beings with emotions and dreams of a better life. They most likely reminded viewers of their own brothers, sisters, classmates, sons, and daughters… which is possibly why many took an interest to Tiny.
Tiny became the stand out figure of the documentary. She was not a fictional character like Jodie Foster’s Iris in Taxi Driver. She was a real life teen escort living the streets of Seattle. Mark and Bell followed her from her visit at a teen health clinic to a stay in juvenile detention after being picked up by police during a solicitation. They continued to stay in touch with her long after the documentary (she even accompanied them to the 1985 Oscars and, through the years, offered her help—which she turned down) and was the subject of many photo and TV/film updates, including this ABC Nightline piece from 1993 and a 23-minute short documentary that Mark and Bell released in the early 2000s. These updates showed her in what, to her, were her good moments and also those raw bad times. There was nothing watered down. It was all real life.
Tiny did eventually get cleaned up from drugs and out of prostitution. And she eventually got married and settling down with her ten children. However, it was far cry from how the fictitious Iris of Taxi Driver escaped the streets of New York and went back to Pittsburg. Mark and Bell could also be looked at as Travis Bickle figures, in a way. If it wasn’t for their presence and the documentary that they created, Tiny’s life (and the lives of those in the film who eventually survived and moved beyond life on the streets) could have been much worse and tragic.
As stated above, Streetwise was a documentary that did what the documentary genre is meant to do: show us real life with no rehearsal and no producer deciding what the audience can or cannot handle. It shines a light on what is happening in our world, whether the viewer wants to believe it or not, and makes us realize our world is not limited to the one in which we interact day to day. It also inspires some to take action, which Mark and Bell did in their capacity over 30 years ago.