Monkey Trainer’s Daughter

by Patricia Thomopoulos

Monkey Trainer's Daughter, India, 1981

This striking photo by Mary Ellen Mark is a portrait of a small, barefooted child seated on rocky ground in the middle of nowhere with two chained monkeys, one huddled close to her side.  As the title suggests, she is the daughter of a monkey trainer.  Her vacant stare, so like that of the animals next to her, along with her appearance, grabs the viewer’s attention.  It immediately brings to mind the numerous similarities between man and ape.  Man is man and well…an ape is just an animal, a lesser being, not capable of the advanced functioning and intellect of man.  How is it then, that this little human being and her monkeys appear so alike in form and function?  The photographer seems to be asking whether this is fact or if it is just our imaginations making such distinctions.  While the relationship between man and animal is sometimes blurred, such as that with a house pet, it is not generally the case with exotic animals such as these monkeys.
Perhaps the culture in New Delhi, India, where this photo was taken, allows for such a relationship and concurrence of man and ape.  It may be that monkeys are a common pet in this society.  Certainly the life of traveling performers often involves animals as part of the entourage.  It is one method of explanation with regard to the discovery of this little girl, found void of expression, perched upon the cold, hard, hay-strewn, rock-scattered ground just like one of the animals.  Similar to other societies throughout the world, it has become easier and easier over time, for passers-by to view such oddities as normal or as part and parcel of a particular lifestyle and not of their concern.  It is put into an out of sight and out of mind category.
To view this photo and deem it a good portrayal of what young life in general or childhood specifically should be, would be a long stretch for most imaginations.  Taking a further look at the image; a tent with a golden cast to it can be seen standing to the left and rear of the girl.  It appears lit from within or perhaps from a reflection cast by a setting sun, mimicking the golden color of the monkey’s lower body.  A few scattered trees are visible in the distance and the sky appears overcast and cloudy, as though a storm is brewing on the horizon, giving a dreary feel to the scene.  Still, one of the most captivating features of all is the child’s expression or lack of.  She is alone with the monkeys to find some comfort and warmth outside the tent rather than within.  No parent or other performers can be seen to offer sanctuary; in fact, the picture is devoid of any other human.  Though there are other monkeys, the monkey trainer is not included in the photo.
Perhaps making a connection to the quality of life rather than lifestyle was the photographer’s intention.  This further reinforces similarities and gives the impression the monkeys are acting as surrogates for this child.  The girl sits with one leg tucked under and one leg crossed forward wearing a dull grey outfit the color of the surrounding stone.  She has a drab looking burnt red piece of cloth that drapes her body and creates a hood for her head and a cloak for her torso.  Without this bit of color she would easily blend right into the landscape unseen to the average eye, a beggar with no hope and at the mercy of those passing by.  Whether she awaits someone or something is anyone’s guess.
Her appearance copies that of the monkeys in size, shape, and form.  Her little hand which gently grasps the cape-like cloth close under her chin, is a copy of the monkeys; particularly the one with its arm hanging.  If this is used to approximate her age, she would not have been more than four or five at the time of this picture.  The rounded shape of her cloak covered head matches the round fur cap of the monkey’s head.  Both forms appear curled or wrapped inward and rather protective. The monkey nearest to the girl has lowered its head to her chest as though it was seeking to embrace her and has placed a hand across her lap with its tail tucked in, rather docile looking.
The chain around its neck runs a course down along the monkey’s arm and across the bent knee of this girl ending like a trail in the ground.  It is possible the photographer uses this as a symbolic reference to the idea of man being bound by the choices he makes or to that of human and animal life being connected together and intertwined like the links of a chain.  Naturally expanded is the suggestion of broken links and the consequences thereof.
Although there is much to be seen in this photograph; rocks, litter, hay, dirt, trees, and the like, the use of natural back lighting has drawn the focus to the little girl and these two monkeys huddled in close together.  Having made good use of that, along with the monkey’s natural coloring, the photographer built a correlation to the earth by using the subtle color shifts suggestive of the natural strata of rock, dark to light and gray to gold.  This further enhanced the image of child and monkey by framing them both in the light.  This method also reinforced the bleak outlook of the picture and the blended natures of ape and man like the woven fibers on a loom.
The positioning of the child and monkeys in the foreground provides a solid focus and holds the viewer’s eye.  Everything else is secondary and acts as an accoutrement.  The isolation is unmistakably portrayed by the rocky barren surroundings and muted colors of the little girl’s clothing.  The rocks and soil match the tough hard life of the traveling performer’s lifestyle and the hay and grasses are like litter or scraps left to the animals, further highlighting the shabbiness and sparse surroundings.  The lean and boney structure of the monkey nearest her suggests hunger plays a role in this picture as well.
While we can’t see the cause of this scenario, we can see the little girl appears completely at ease with the monkeys as though she is one of them.  This brings up a question of whether she offered them comfort, company, and support, or vice versa.  Their appearance together looks natural as though it has always been this way, and perhaps it has.  The reality of the photo is not bright regardless of which way it is viewed and does not give the image of the happy-go lucky lifestyle most westerners would equate with childhood.
Through use of natural lighting, nature, and an excellent subject choice, the photographer has broached several important topics and made a lasting impression on the viewer.  Prompting topics like these through the use of visuals helps to stimulate discussion and dialogue.  Through dialoguing one acknowledges other views and allows the possibility for change.  Man often looks for symbols to tell the way of the future and to seek directions; let this child be one of them.  It is true that man and ape are very much alike however, as an elevated thinker and performer; man should see this child needs more and offer it; before the apes did.  Man should provide adequate sanctuary for man.