Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, California, 1936, gelatin silver print, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Migrant Mother: Truths and Half-Truths

Social documentary photographers used their pictures to document serious problems in society and generate change.  Their intentions were admirable, the change they achieved was vital, but their methods were not always completely honest.  The power of most photographs lies in the fact that they appear truthful, yet are easily manipulated and photographers like Dorothea Lange were adept at exploiting this characteristic.

The newly formed Farm Security Administration hired Lange and other photographers to take pictures of the wretched working and living conditions of the laborers who migrated to California from the drought in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and New Mexico.  The U.S. government then published the photographs to gain public support for the country’s first welfare program.

This woman’s name is Florence Owens Thompson.  She was thirty-two years old when the picture was taken.  She lived in a pea pickers camp in Nipomo, California with her seven children and they all were starving.

Lange took several photographs of Thompson, but this certainly is the most moving because of the similarities between the composition here and traditional images of the Madonna and Child.  By making this clear comparison to the iconic image type, Lange implied that Thompson is a saint.

Lange also chose to include only three of Thompson’s seven children in the photograph probably because it would have been easier to get public support for welfare if people thought she had fewer children.


More photographs by Dorothea Lange

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