Mary Ellen Mark (1941-2015) put her hands on photography in the 1960s, depicting streets scenes in her native Philadelphia as well as anti-Vietnam and women’s rights demonstrations in New York. Quite promptly, when working for Look magazine, the American photographer chose to chronicle the existences of the desperate, the marginals, the homeless, the wounded of life such as Indian street prostitutes, psychiatric patients, juvenile heroine addicts: “I care about people and that’s why I became a photographer.”

In the July 1983 issue of LIFE magazine, writer Cheryl McCall and photographer Mary Ellen Mark published “Streets of the Lost,” an in-depth article and photo essay on Seattle street kids. In the piece, McCall and Mark tell the story of a group of homeless and runaway teens—Tina, a 13-year-old prostitute with dreams of diamonds and furs; Rat and Mike, 16-year-olds who eat from dumpsters; and Dewayne, a 16-year-old boy who hanged himself in a juvenile facility when faced with the prospect of returning to the streets. It’s uneasy subject matter, and a staggering portrait of what life without a stable home can look like.

Despite the darkness of her subjects, Mary Ellen Mark always managed to propose humanistic images, freed from obscenity and disapproval. She also captured the glamour of society as a recognized celebrity portraitist and an on-set photographer for Federico Fellini or Francis Ford Coppola. The photographer succeeded in linking the illustrious with the miserable in the same melancholic yet gentle manner: “I take sad photographs. But look at the tenderness.”

Friends Rat, 16 (far left), and Mike, 17, have this Colt .45 only for defense, they insist, against men who try to pick them up or rob them. "I get hassled a lot" says Rat. "Mike's my protection." They picked Seattle because Mike had once lived there.
Friends Rat, 16 (far left), and Mike, 17, have this Colt .45 only for defense, they insist, against men who try to pick them up or rob them. “I get hassled a lot” says Rat. “Mike’s my protection.” They picked Seattle because Mike had once lived there.
Mike, passing for 18 with a fake I.D., earns $30 a week by selling plasma.
Mike, passing for 18 with a fake I.D., earns $30 a week by selling plasma.
Patti, 16, was arrested minutes after this brawl, cited for simple assault and released. Like many runaways, she learned violence at home and doesn’t hesitate to use it–even though she’s now four months pregnant–to settle all disputes. She is one of nine children, six of whom prefer the terror of the street to life in their Seattle home.
Dark-haired Patti waited until her victim’s pimp was out of sight and then jumped this girl because she never returned a borrowed jacket.
Shaken but unhurt, the girl finds her pimp. He calls the cops.
Shaken but unhurt, the girl finds her pimp. He calls the cops.
Patti’s tender side is reserved for her boyfriend, Munchkin. Patti and her boyfriend, 17, used to share motel rooms with a group of kids. Then Munchkin struck a deal with a motel manager in which Patti exchanges sex with him for a room of their own each night. But they haven’t yet found a solution to the $16 jaywalking and $125 littering tickets they–and all the kids–get almost daily. These are a form of police harassment, and one unpaid littering fine (the only means they have of paying is by prostitution or theft) means five nights in jail.
Erin and her stepfather argue when she’s home. “He doesn’t want me around,” she says. “He wants my mom all to himself.” Erin, 14, has been arrested twice for prostitution. Her probation order states that she must live with her family, not on the streets. Home is a one-room apartment over a tavern in downtown Seattle, and her bed is the couch. Her mother and stepfather, both unemployed, spend most of their time in the bar downstairs. During the year she was on the streets, Erin was raped, was lured into posing for pornographic photographs and supported a pimp by turning tricks.
Laurie, 14, says she was promised $80 by a middle-aged doctor who sexually abused her but reneged on the payment. She recently left Seattle to live with a Christian group in Kent, Wash.
This young dealer is injecting a 14-year-old customer with MDA (methylene dioxy amphetamine) in a crash pad for runaways. At $5 a capsule, MDA is the drug of choice among Seattle street kids–though marijuana is common, and LSD is making a comeback. MDA users need at least five capsules to attain the desired “body rush,” a violent shuddering later followed by sudden vomiting, clenching jaws and twitching eyes. The $1 “rigs” are disposable insulin syringes, but addicts dangerously reuse them as many as 50 times, honing dull needles on matchbook strips and lubricating the plungers with Vaseline.
When a homeless boy collapsed in agonizing spasms, fire department medics speculated his problem was drug related and rushed him to a hospital.
Within an hour of leaving this motel room, the two 14-year-old girls on the right were arrested for prostitution. They call the boy on the bed their “popcorn pimp” because he is only 18.
James, 18, sleeps under a waterfront viaduct.
Rat and Mike call rummaging for food in trash bins behind restaurants dumpster diving.
Rat and Mike call rummaging for food in trash bins behind restaurants dumpster diving.
Rat gives the finger to a man who ignored his begging.
Rat gives the finger to a man who ignored his begging.
This window is the only entry into the hotel.
This window is the only entry into the hotel.

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