Research point: FSA and Migrant Mother

The importance of the FSA project

The 1935–44 Farm Security Administration (FSA) project led by social scientist Roy Stryker is arguably the most important example of state-sponsored social documentary in photographic history. It was intended to support the Roosevelt government’s ‘New Deal’ following the devastating impacts of the Great Depression that gripped the USA in the 1930s.

In the context of photographic history it provides a groundbreaking case study of using photography to help drive social change. It is not without reason that virtually every significant book on the history of photography makes mention of the FSA project, and many famous US photographers passed through its ranks, including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Jack Delano and Gordon Parks.

Authorial and editorial intent

One of the most fascinating but problematic aspects of the FSA project was the complicated set of influences placed on what would be photographed, how it would be photographed and what intended messages were expected by the different parties in the project.

Whilst clearly falling into the social documentary category, it raises questions on the extent to which the message can be controlled – and researching the project unearths ongoing tension between the participants on what the objective of the project was, and how best to achieve it.

Initially, the brief was to provide motivational images of those Americans that were still working  (Wells 2009: 97) but most of the photographers gravitated towards what they saw as the ‘real story’ of the poor, dispossessed families leaving their homes and making gruelling journeys across the USA to find work and food. Evans and Lange in particular felt it their duty to tell the stories of the displaced, regardless of the ‘shooting script’ they had been given. Lange is quoted putting it simply: “We were after the truth, not just making effective pictures” (Wells 2009: 40).

So the photographers often veered off brief in terms of the subject matter. Some went further and applied photographic techniques that lift the images above pure record and add layers of emphasis and connotation that move into a more subjective and emotive style than the FSA intended. Stryker’s ‘mistake’ (or alternatively his masterstroke) was hiring good photographers; they couldn’t help but apply their skills. As Sontag puts it in On Photography:

“The immensely gifted members of the Farm Security Administration […] would take dozens of frontal pictures of one of their sharecropper subjects until satisfied that they had gotten just the right look on film – the precise expression on the subject’s face that supported their notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation, and geometry.” (Sontag 1979:6)

Whether they did this consciously or not, taking an aesthetically pleasing, well-composed image (such as Migrant Mother) can help in evoking empathy in the viewer – and so furthered the objectives of the project.

Once delivered to FSA headquarters, however, the images were subject to strict selection and editorial control. The FSA effectively acted as a picture agency, choosing what images to place where to support the government’s intended message. The message evidently evolved over time, as by 1939 the FSA published many of the images in the book An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion – a title that demonstrated that the ‘official’ intent of the project did indeed move towards depicting the Depression’s victims, as per the photographers’ intent.

By 1942 though, the aim had swung back towards boosting morale. Sontag quotes a Stryker memo: “We must have at once pictures of men, women and children who appear as if they really believed in the US. Get people with a little spirit.” (Sontag 1979: 62). Once again the final say on what is shown to the public rests with the financial patron – in this case the government.

This raises important questions on the ‘truth’ (accuracy, authenticity, objectivity) of so-called social documentary, which may purport to depict ‘cold, hard facts’ yet always has an underlying set of assumptions (objectives, angles, viewpoints, prejudices, directives).

The FSA project stands as a reminder that one must always endeavour to find out who has instigated and funded a particular work – and attempt to ascertain their intent. In particular this point applies to state-sponsored documentary, which at its extremes becomes propaganda.

Migrant Mother

Wells (2009:39-49) includes a comprehensive study of Dorothea Lange’s famous 1936 image known as Migrant Mother, and offers a number of ways to analyse the image and its impact. Whether some or all of these factors can be applied to all documentary images is questionable, as few photographs gain the iconic status of Migrant Mother.

At its base, it is a social/historical testament: “The woman is used purely as subject. She is appropriated within a symbolic framework of significance as declared and determined by Lange” (Clarke 1997: 153).

Beyond the simple brief, Lange made decisions on how to shoot and in particular what to include and exclude. The woman had seven children but only three are included in the image. The close framing excludes the surroundings (tent, landscape) that would have placed the scene in its appropriate FSA-directed context. The choice of this specific exposure had a number of effects; removal of environmental cues made this a more universal image, easier to empathise with. As long as it is presented in the context of other photographs that do place the scenes in the appropriate context, the power of this image is magnified, not diminished, by the close framing.

The expression on the woman’s face and the bringing of her hand to her chin both suggest deep thought, inviting the viewer to ponder what is on the woman’s mind (survival?) which intensifies the emotive connection. Two of the children hide their heads, a gesture of shyness or perhaps embarrassment (their faces are visible in the rejected images from the shoot).

The allusions to existing art, namely the Madonna and Child, are plain to see and almost certainly a significant reason for choosing this exposure.

Wells also considers the effect of the title (1997: 43-44). It has been alternatively captioned Seasonal Farm Labourer’s Family and Destitute Pea Pickers in California, a 32 year old mother of seven children – but the former implies the presence of a husband-father and the latter clumsily contradicts the image contents. Migrant Mother is loaded with significance: migrant is a potent word, conjuring up images of having to leave home to survive, and mother is such a universal image that one can’t help but empathise. The simple alliteration didn’t hurt either, it made it all the more memorable.

The gender aspects of an image of ‘The Mother’ taken by a woman is discussed (Wells 1997: 45). Women photographers were rarer then than now, and Lange was a pioneer. Her legacy is of bringing a depth of compassion to social documentary that was hitherto lacking in the more ‘objective’ work of her male peers (Wells 1997: 45, quoting Fisher 1987: 131) and has since become a widely accepted aspect of documentary work.

Finally, the image became so famous that it transcended its documentary roots. It was (and continues to be) reproduced and reused in a variety of contexts, including art gallery walls. Its universality was sealed in its inclusion in The Family of Man (Steichen (ed) 1955). It became shorthand for the FSA, for the Great Depression, for early 20th century American photography, for women photographers, for documentary photography.

It became a symbol of so many things that it ultimately developed a life of its own. Very few images do that.


Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin.

Steichen, E. (ed) (2015) The Family of Man (60th Anniversary Edition). New York: MOMA.

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.


3 thoughts on “Research point: FSA and Migrant Mother

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s