The Migrant Mother - No Benefit to Being a Symbol of Social Change



Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange is one of those most iconic images of the Great Depression. Lange took this photograph in 1936, while employed by the U.S. government’s Farm Security program to raise awareness of the poverty of rural farmers. Lange approached a very tired and hungry young mother, Florence Owens Thompson. Lange did not ask many questions of the mother.

Thompson, her boyfriend and children had driven down Highway 101, hoping to find lettuce-picking work near Watsonville. Their car broke down near Nipomo and camped with 3,500 pea pickers who were jobless because the crops were ruined by freezing rain. Though Lange said the woman had sold her tires for money, her boyfriend and sons went to go fix the car in town. Lange took a couple photos of them in the course of ten minutes. Lange wrote the experience as follows:

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean- to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it. (From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).

Migrant Mother’s success earned Dorothy many things: a Guggenheim fellowship, she became a historically acclaimed photographer and she was revered in the photography community. Her work was important to the time as she documented other subjects of the Great Depression and raised awareness to the terrible conditions of the poor in rural America. Thompson remained a silent subaltern in Lange’s photo and she did not benefit from the photo. Until the late 70s, Thompson’s identity was virtually unknown

In critical theory and postcolonialism, the term subaltern designates the populations which are socially, politically and geographically outside of the hegemonic power structure of the colony and of the colonial homeland. We’ve seen the photos of starving African children with calls to help, but never the child’s story upfront. We've painfully witnessed first world youth go on missions, taking selfies with impoverished children and claim that the kids 'opened their eyes', while many of these children return to poverty. Have you ever heard someone start their argument with ‘I watched a documentary’? As they go on, they are unaware that those who made the documentary are often in better economic and social standing than those oppressed being documented. Thompson became a symbol of white motherhood in the time period, though her story could only be told by someone with more of a social standing, education and privilege in comparison to her to be taken seriously.

Florence was quoted as saying "I wish she [Lange] hadn't taken my picture. I can't get a penny out of it. She didn't ask my name. She said she wouldn't sell the pictures. She said she'd send me a copy. She never did." She also has said “I worked in hospitals. I tended bar. I cooked. I worked in the fields. I done a little bit of everything to make a living for my kids.”

Daughter Katherine McIntosh has said that the photo's fame had made the family feel both ashamed and determined never to be as poor again.

Daughter Norma Rydlewski says as well, ‘Mother was a woman who loved to enjoy life, who loved her children. She loved music and she loved to dance. When I look at that photo of mother, it saddens me. That’s not how I like to remember her.’

Though Lange’s efforts did bring support into helping the impoverished farmers, the support never made an impact on Thompson’s life, except for when she had a stroke and her children raised a meagre amount of money using her name.

Lange receives social standing and security. The world is aware of the Great Depression. Thompson lives her live in silence and passes without much recognition. The photo becomes history, the woman is obscured into an symbol.

From Migrant Mother to Baton Rouge to Tiananmen Square to campuses in the US, in the next couple of posts, I hope to explore modern examples that show the movement between being an individual to symbol. Especially in our day and age with the use of social media, I hope to explore how an image of someone can obscure the realities of the individual. This is a short term project I'm hoping to turn into a podcast. Hope you enjoy!