SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Mary Ellen Mark took portraits of people who aren't often asked to pose for portraits - homeless children in Seattle, prostitutes in India, a family living out of its car. She was one of America's most famous and prolific photographers. She died last month at the age of 75. NPR's Chris Benderev was curious about one of Mary Ellen Mark's photos and tried to find out what happened in the years after it was taken.
CHRIS BENDEREV, BYLINE: The photo is from 1990. It's titled, "Amanda And Her Cousin Amy, Valdez, N.C." And in it, there are these two little girls outside in a plastic wading pool. One is slouched against the side in the water, and the other is standing up. She's wearing makeup and fake nails, and here's what makes the photo most memorable - she is smoking.
JEFF JACOBSON: She's holding a cigarette.
BENDEREV: This is Jeff Jacobson, a photographer and a friend of Mary Ellen Mark.
JACOBSON: And she's holding it in a way that a much older woman would hold it, and it looks like she's blowing smoke out right in the face of the photographer.
BENDEREV: That 9-year-old girl is Amanda.
JACOBSON: For me, this photograph leaves me with a slightly uneasy feeling, like, why is this kid smoking a cigarette? She's a little kid.
BENDEREV: So what happened to Amanda, and what does she think of this photo?
AMANDA MARIE ELLISON: Never forgotten it. Never in my life have I forgotten it.
BENDEREV: Amanda Marie Ellison lives in Lenoir, N.C. today. She's 34 years old, and she says she hadn't seen the photo in decades. She'd forgotten the photographer's name and couldn't track it down. Then last month, someone posted the picture on her Facebook feed.
ELLISON: I cried. I cried because it was just all at once, there it was. And I - just for that moment, I cried.
BENDEREV: In 1990, the photographer Mary Ellen Mark had been sent to rural North Carolina by Life magazine to cover a school for, quote, "problem children." At age 9, Amanda Ellison was one of those children.
She's my favorite, Mary Ellen Mark later told Vogue magazine. She was so bad. She was wonderful. She had a really vulgar mouth. She was brilliant.
Amanda Ellison admits she was an out-of-control 9-year-old, but she says she was just emulating the adults in her life, all of them drug-addicted, living in a housing complex nicknamed Sin City.
ELLISON: It was just full of anything and everything at that time that you could think of - drugs, drinking, or just the women with different men, the men with different women. And just the wild nightlife is all I ever saw coming up.
BENDEREV: Did you smoke regularly at that age?
ELLISON: I did, I did. If I couldn't get 'em - if somebody wouldn't give 'em to me - yes, I'd steal a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, and I'd be gone and I'd sit in the woods and smoke till they were gone. That was my release. That was my only - to me at that time, that was my getaway.
BENDEREV: Amanda Ellison says she was taken into foster care at age 11. She lived in group homes after that. She says she became addicted to drugs when she was 16. Her cousin, Amy Minton Velasquez - that other kid in that famous photo - she confirmed all this.
AMY MINTON VELASQUEZ: I mean, I had a rough childhood, but I will say this - that young'un, she was put through things that would probably make the hair stand on your head if you really knew.
BENDEREV: The 9-year-old Amanda knew that there was something deeply wrong with her childhood. And here's the thing - she saw those Mary Ellen Mark photos as a possible solution.
ELLISON: When she came along and took those photos, I thought, well, hey, you know, people will see me and this may get me the attention that I want. It may change things for me.
BENDEREV: She thought someone would see the photos and rescue her.
ELLISON: And had I thought that might've been the way out, but it wasn't.
BENDEREV: The photographer Jeff Jacobson says Mary Ellen Mark wasn't the type to give false impressions to her subjects, but...
JACOBSON: In any photographic encounter, the one person that always benefits and always is in a more powerful position and always knows more is the photographer.
BENDEREV: By her own admission, Amanda Ellison's adulthood is still tumultuous. She's spent time in prison. She's still, quote, "surrounded by crazy people and drugs." But she says she does still find herself thinking about that photographer lady.
ELLISON: What would it do for her to see me today after all those years?
BENDEREV: What do you think if you had to guess?
ELLISON: If I had to guess, I would say she would just be overwhelmed with joy to see that I have made it this far. I just wish that I could see that lady or just talk to that lady again.
BENDEREV: Chris Benderev, NPR News.
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