There are some images that always feel familiar. Whether or not you’ve seen them before, or know what they depict, they still ring with the same deep-rooted meaning and symbolism of a childhood memory. Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ is such an image, one that acts as a form of visual shorthand for a universal array of very human fears and struggles. Though it evocatively depicts people in a very specific set of circumstances, its timeless capacity to inspire empathy for those on the margins is perhaps more valuable still. As the decades march on, it serves as a valuable reminder of the endless necessity for compassion.
Taken in 1936, at the height of Great Depression, it formed part of a series of images taken by Lange while working for the US Federal Resettlement Administration. The image, which would arguably go on to define Lange’s career and the Great Depression generally, was taken of Florence Owens Thompson and her young family, whom Lange had encountered while travelling the country documenting the conditions of rural workers stricken by poverty . Other photos from the brief shoot reveal more of their bleak surroundings, however upon viewing the alternatives, it is clear that the most powerful image was chosen. The close up, combining an evocative glimpse of the subject’s shelter while showing in detail Thompson’s careworn, pensive expression is such that we need not see the landscape. The subject of the image is not so much the miserable conditions, but the helplessness of the people caught within them.
The soon-to-be-iconic image’s speedy publication in the San Francisco News would lead to significant publicity for the area’s rural poor, however by the time a large shipment of federal relief arrived at the camp where the image was shot, Thompson and her family had moved on. She would go on to achieve some degree of economic security later in life, however, in a sense, her story was not as important as the image’s broader cultural importance. The photo’s life extends well beyond its creation as contemporary photojournalism, and has become one of the defining images of the era, and of economic struggle more generally. It taps into fundamental feelings of fear, uncertainty, and even shame in the face of hardship that all but the luckiest experience to some degree; a reminder of the ever-relevant need to empathise with the desperate and marginalised.
The photographer, Dorothea Lange, led a life that would surely have enabled her to empathise with those against whom the odds seemed unfairly stacked. In a time where the capacity for women to engage in fulfilling professional careers was hampered by inherently discriminatory institutions and attitudes, Lange had a lengthy and varied career as a photographer drawn to issues of social relevance. After deciding to become a photographer following her studying as a teacher during the mid 1910s, she studied photography at Columbia University, and subsequently moved into portrait work. After a period of dissatisfaction with her subjects, she moved into documenting incidents of social and economic importance, working with a variety of government bodies. After her pivotal work with rural workers that would yield images such as ‘Migrant Mother’, she went on other parts of America, as well as Asia, South America and the Middle East. Her compassion for those on the margins, subject to external factors beyond their control, was no doubt informed by her own life experience. A childhood bout of polio left her with a limp that would mark her out for the rest of her life, and later in life she would struggle with significant and chronic health troubles that made day-to-day life a constant challenge, though she kept working.
This sense of arbitrary and unfair hardship imposed on the already vulnerable is also underpinned in another significant series of stills by Lange, following her work during the Depression. As Japanese-Americans were forcibly dislocated and interned in detention camps after the attack on Pearl Harbour, Lange was sent by the War Relocation Authority to document the families, their neighbourhoods, and the camps they were now forced to call home. The resulting images unflinchingly detail the tragedy and injustice of this incarceration, and serve as a vital reminder of an aspect of US history that has only recently received recognition, and even then to nowhere near the extent that it merits.
This commitment to capturing and conveying the struggles of those whose lives are often forgotten in the march of history is self-evident in Lange’s work, and in images like ‘Migrant Mother’ serves as a powerful reminder of the universal fears and struggles at the heart of such incidents of economic displacement, whether they happened years ago, or are happening now.
If you want to shine a light on what matters to you, head over to the Canon Shine page and check out the competition because no one sees it like you.