Yesterday’s article caused a lot of self-searching. The day ended with a shopping spree on Amazon, where I purchased a book by Nan Golding, a photographer who also took photos on the fringes of society. Today, I am playing it a little safe and telling the tale of Dorothea Lange and the Migrant Woman. It is a tale often told with a happy(ish) ending and stands as a lesson for Street and Journalistic photographers. Spoiler – by the time I finished the article I found out more than I wanted to.
Lange worked as a photojournalist for the American government’s Farm Security Administration. Her photos would help shape policy and create working documents; these documents soon stood as pieces of art. Lange gained her position with the FSA through her photography of the homeless and unemployed, visiting soup kitchens during the American Great Depression. As a child, Lange contracted polio and walked with a limp, citing the disease as something that, “instructed me, helped me and humiliated me.” Perhaps it was her non-threatening stance, caused by the disease, which led to the migrant worker dropping her defences and allowing her photo to be taken. Maybe the migrant women could read that Lange was there to help. Alternatively, the lady was just too tired as she had been feeding her family on frozen vegetables plucked from the soil, and wild birds caught by her hungry children.
This picture led to government aid being delivered to the displaced share-croppers. However, you can tell for the migrant worker’s eyes, that in her heart, she knew help was a long way off.
Lange did not get this photo first shot. She started further out and worked her way slowly towards the migrant mother, taking more photographs as the subject relaxed. Lesson? Don’t run in and run out. Take your time with those you photograph, let them acknowledge you and relax, gaining unspoken permission between the observed and the observee. Lange also talked to her subjects afterwards to find out more about each situation.
I promised a happy ending, but as ever, when I write a post I learn more than I knew at the beginning. In my last post, we looked at how Dianne Arbus has been consistently critisised for exploitation of her subject. The photo of the Migrant Worker is an iconic image, ingrained the mind of many Americans. It is a photo that catapulted Lange to fame and one that led to many awards. However, Florence Owens Thompson, the lady in the photograph, lived a life of poverty and never made a cent from the photograph.
Maybe a final lesson for us as photographers, is to be careful how we judge others’ work, and take little at face value. Hope this has given you all something for thought. Tomorrow I will be writing about the fantastic, Martin Parr. Surely an artist whose work can bring some much needed light relief to this series!
Take care and keep clicking, Chris