There is a very famous photograph from 1990 by a noted photographer named Mary Ellen Mark of a 9-year-old girl wearing make-up, sitting in a tiny backyard plastic pool and smoking cigarettes.
It turns out the girl came from a very rough and troubled background and continues to have troubles today. NPR did a really powerful piece on this girl.
The photograph is called “Amanda and her Cousin Amy” and was taken in Valdese, North Carolina.
NPR actually tracked the girl down (Mary Ellen Mark recently passed away). Her name at the time of the photo was Amanda Minton — she now goes by the name Amanda Marie Ellison and she is now 34 years old. It turns out she remembered the photo and remembered the photographer.
In 1990, Mark had been sent to rural North Carolina by Life magazine to cover a school for “problem children.” Ellison was one of those children. “She’s my favourite,” Mark told British Vogue in 1993. “She was so bad she was wonderful, she had a really vulgar mouth, she was brilliant.”
Amanda Ellison explains how she was smoking at age 9:
Ellison openly concedes she was a “wild” child, but she says she was just emulating the adults in her life, all of whom by her memory were drug-addicted, residing in a low-income housing complex nicknamed “Sin City.” It was around that time that she began to smoke.
“If I couldn’t get [cigarettes], if somebody wouldn’t give them to me, yes, I’d steal a pack of cigarettes and be gone,” she says. “I’d sit in the woods and smoke ’til they were gone.”
People talk a lot about how somehow dope is a “gateway drug” to harder drugs. Well, research has shown the real gateway drug is nicotine. Sure enough, Amanda graduated from cigarettes to harder drugs.She was addicted to hard drugs by the age of 16.
The most heartbreaking part of the story is that Amanda thought the photos of her smoking at 9 would somehow spur someone to come rescue her from her rough existence, but it never happened.
“When she came along and took those photos, I thought, ‘Well, hey, people will see me and this may get me the attention that I want; it may change things for me,’ ” Ellison says. She thought someone would see the images and come rescue her. “I had thought that that might have been the way out. But it wasn’t.”
Amanda has since done actual prison time, but she is trying to get her life together. From NPR:
By her own admission, Ellison’s adulthood is still tumultuous. She has served time in prison and says she is still “surrounded by crazy people and drugs.” But she says her life has improved, and she wishes she could talk again with “that photographer lady.”
“If I had to guess,” Ellison says, “I would say she would be, I don’t know, overwhelmed with joy that I have made it this far.”
Amanda’s photo and her story made me think of another photo. It was actually taken on a beach way back in 1969 and shows about a 10- or 11-year-old girl smoking a cigarette. The photo is called “Priscilla” and it was taken by a photographer named Joseph Szabo.
Dinosaur Jr. used that photo on their “Green Mind” album cover from 1991 — an album I really wore the crap out of back in the day. Even 24 years ago, that album cover bothered me, and I wondered who that girl was and what her parents — or whatever her loved ones — thought of her smoking so young. That photo always haunted me. It felt so painful. Someone so young doing so much damage to themselves. Now, like Amanda, I wonder what her story was and what became of her. She would be about 56 or 57 today.