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Streets of the Lost: 18 Vintage Photographs Document Runaway Teenagers Living in the Streets of Seattle in the 1980s

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.

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.

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Streets of the Lost: 18 Vintage Photographs Document Runaway Teenagers Living in the Streets of Seattle in the 1980s


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