Documenting the Depression:
The FSA photographers and Rural Poverty
The Great Depression fell hard in the year of 1935 bringing what seemed to some people the end of the world. But in truth, the Great Depression was nothing near the end of the world, in fact the year of 1935 was not the first year nor was it the last year that many families had suffered and went hungry due to lack of work. Families forced to leave their home. Children going in hunger while their bellies pierced with pain. Mothers trying desperately to keep the family together while holding the brunt of the problems due to the depression. The husbands feeling the guilt for not having a job and thinking that it is his fault. Children scream with lack of food and sheer boredom as the families pack their bags and head towards California in hopes to find work and the start of a new life. This is a painted picture of what one might have saw during the Great Depression. However, we need not imagine what it might have been like. What pictures might have looked like because we already know.
Photography was a technological advance during the nineteenth century and although not many people had cameras, the ones that did, did not miss the opportunity to capture the cruel times of that period. In John Vachons picture taken in 1940, he shows an abandoned farmhouse in Ward County, North Dakota. Vachon also takes a picture of the living quarters of a fruit packing home for the workers in Berrien, Michigan in 1940. The small confinements of the house could barely suit one person let alone a whole family. Dorothea Lang, another photographer of that time shots photos of a migrant mother in Nipomo, California in 1936. Her face stern and wrinkled. A look of sadness and concern appears on her tired face while her two children cling on to her shoulder. She also took a picture of a Mexican migrant workers home in Imperial Valley, California in 1937. His home is merely anymore than a small bedroom. A shack made out of cardboard and what appears to be aluminum. Once again, hardly set for one person let alone a family. These conditions were not anything unusual. Unfortunately, those were the times during the Great Depression and the photographers could not have captured them any better.
The Great Depression ended because of World War II but the memories and the photographs during that period would not be forgotten. In 1962 a man by the name of Edward Steichen, head of the photography department in New York for the Museum of Modern Art made an exhibit titled, The Bitter Years, 1935-1941. Because of that exhibit, people discovered that some things had not changed at all since than: rural poverty, racial discrimination, and social injustice. The exhibit helped shed new light to what really happened during those times. For the people that went through the depression, it may have brought back memories Dont forget were you steamed from someone once said and for the people who may never know what it is like to be taken away from all you know and forced to live in poverty, it helped shed new light to the meaning, There is no place like home.
The pictures show the evidence. The faces of the people, worn out and etched with worry. The children full of dirt and grit. The families gathered around but with no smiles. I will never know exactly how hard those times were for those people, nor will anyone else who did not live in those times. But the pictures, well they speak for themselves. I was asked to answer the question, What messages did these photographs send to middle-class Americans who saw them but my only conclusion is fear. I do not think that they felt guilty during that time period because it wasnt them. I actually think that they considered themselves lucky and considered the poverty stricken to have gotten what they deserve. The once-fertile farmlands of the plains and prairies were no longer usable due to the dust storms and the abandonment of the farmers. Another question asked was, Why do you think these documentary photographs were so effective in creating sympathy and support for aid to these farmers? My answer to that is because they represent the truth. The photographs of hard working women, men and children who were forced to grow up before there time. Dirt plastered on their faces like it was make-up and clothes ragged and torn like they were dolls. Physical appearance was what it appears to be at its worst. Hair left untangled and showers, well they were scarce. The times were definitely rough. But the pictures that were taken were not only of hard times and desperate people; they were also of the people that profited from the Great Depression. People like the owner of a general store, Bank and Cotton Gin in Wendell, North Carolina in 1939. That picture was taken by Marion Post Wolcott and it shows the owner neatly pressed wearing a black suit and hat smoking a cigar. Arthur Rothstein took another picture in 1940 that one also depicts an owner of a mule dealer in Creedmoor, North Carolina neatly pressed in a black suit only smoking a cigarette as opposed to a cigar. Those were the people who didnt care that people were suffering, they didnt care if they had no home and most of all, they didnt care if children went hungry. They were in it for they money. So when I look at those pictures and think what the American middle class worker at that time would think, I hatefully have to say that they would not care one way or another. You win some, you lose some.
The Great Depression was a tragic era in history. To sum up the feelings and hard times that people had suffered through would be nearly impossible. But like I stated in the previous pages, the pictures tell no lies. The pictures cannot erase the expression on peoples faces or the appearance that portray. The evidence is in the pictures, it always has been and it will remain to do so until the end of time.
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