Between Voyeurism, Seduction, and Confrontation: Mary Ellen Mark's Ward 81

Author Info
Jui-Ch'i Liu
Center for General Education and the Graduate Institute of Sociology, National Tsing Hua University

Mary Ellen Mark (1940- ) is one of the most influential, contemporary photojournalists in the United States. In 1979, she published Ward 81, a study of severely ill women at Oregon State Mental Hospital. This article, based on visual analyses as well as some crucial literature, compares Mark's works with related works in the tradition of maledominated psychiatric photography. In so doing, I decode how Mark negotiates her female gaze on women's madness. I also elucidate Mark's works through contemporary cultural discourses in sociology, literary theory, the history of science, the history of art, and gender studies to interpret the historical, aesthetic, cultural, social, and political meanings of Ward 81. My main innovative perspective is: Mark's imagery of women's madness differs from that in the tradition of psychiatric photography since the mid-nineteenth century. She no longer takes her lens as a tool to surveil women's madness in medical institutions. Rather, her photographs, influenced by the anti-psychiatry movement, reveal and protest against the anti-humanistic treatment of the female insane in Ward 81. Also, her provocative photographs of madwomen gazing back metaphorically establish their subversive agency and subjectivity against the rational surveillance of women's madness under patriarchy. In the conclusion, I examine the contribution and limitation of Ward 81 in the realm of gender politics and discuss whether women's madness is a powerful and subversive metaphor against the patriarchal order within feminist theory.

Taiwanese Journal for Studies of Science, Technology and Medicine, Number 4 (April 2007), 109-149