The 1930s were one of the hardest periods in American history, with Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. President Roosevelt tried to ease the grim economic situation of his country with the “New Deal” programs. However, his government, in an attempt to justify these programs, employed photographers to document those affected by the crisis and publish the photos. Photography would become the medium to show the struggle of the people during the Great Depression.
But the programs weren’t cheap and required government funding for their maintenance. Former Roosevelt advisor, Rexford Tugwell, headed up the department and soon hired Columbia University professor Roy Stryker as Chief of the Historical Section in the Division of Information. Stryker also led the agency’s Photographic Unit.
Stryker created a team of documentary photographers to document life during the crisis in the rural area of America. These photographers had tasks to produce photos of farmers working on their land, migrants looking for job, kids playing and in general show the effects of the Great Depression on everyday life of the rural areas.
The first photographer Stryker chose for his team was Arthur Rothstein. During his five years with the FSA, his most noteworthy contribution was, “Fleeing a Dust Storm,”. A (supposedly posed) photo of an Oklahoma homesteader and his two young sons trudging through swirling layers of dust towards a dilapidated shack.
Maybe the most famous photography from the crisis is “The Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange. The photograph of Florence Owens Thompson, a 32-year-old mother living in a camp of stranded pea pickers. “Migrant Mother,” became a defining symbol of the Great Depression. The pictures’ publication incited an emergency food delivery to the pea picker’s camp. However, Thompson and her family had reportedly moved on before help arrived.
In this harsh period of Great Depression for million of people, some great photographers showed the importance of photography to document history. The photographers that Stryker hired, didn’t want to just churn out propaganda photos of bread lines, vacant farmhouses and barefoot children caked with dust. They also wanted to capture the raw emotion behind the drudgery and bring empathy to the suffering of ordinary Americans. It is true that a photo sometimes can change a life. This happened in Thompson’s case and maybe it is one of the best mediums to protect the truth.
For more photographies during the Great Depression, we advise you to check out the following article: