Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Real Migrant Mother


1. The story of the 'Migrant Mother'

In the March of 1936, Dorothea Lange photographed Florence Owens Thompson to portray the famous 'Migrant Mother' photography series. In that time, she was working for the Resettlement Administration -later to become Farm Security Administration- and she was taking photographs to drew the attention of the society to the situation of agricultural workers in the Depression Era and to prove the point of the current governmental policy. The photograph immediately raised a lot of public attention, as well as the attention of the government officials who provided food, jobs and doctors for the Pea-Pickers Camp in Nipomo, California. Despise all these attention on the photography, Lange explained little about the “heroine” of the photograph, who would be seen in a new light after 1970's when Thompson herself chose to reveal her true story.

The “object” of the photograph in artistic photography often have little importance on explaining and understanding the work at hand, but in situations like these, when the object is an objectified person, the story of that person can provide new focuses to criticize the work itself.

Lange only provided little information on the 'Migrant Mother':

“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. (i)

The real story of the 'Migrant Mother' contradicts with the facts giving by Lange. Florence Owen Thompson was a 32 year old Cherokee Native-American, who had to work in temporary agricultural camps, after the death of her first husband, with seven kids at the moment that the photo was taken, and with Jim Hill who joined the family a year ago and took the role of husband and father (though they never legally got married). The source of the story that Lange told later in the 1960 about them selling their tires to buy food and further information is unknown and mostly false as Jim Hill and her oldest son ,Troy Owens, just went to the town to find some auto parts, because their car was broken and they went later that day to another camp in Watsonville. Even the time given by Lange is wrong by one month, according to the record Thompson and her children gave later to various newspapers. For years, people believed that aside being an iconic photograph of the era, the photograph saved Thompson's life, because soon after, food, shelter and work were given to the families in the pea-pickers camp, but in fact, the Thompson family left the camp before the aids arrived.

2. The Surrealism of the Photograph and the Social Documentary- Reading the Photograph with Susan Sontag's 'Melancholy Objects'

Susan Sontag defines photography as the medium which duplicates the reality dramatically: they change the quality and situation of certain object with the creation of a composition, therefore every photograph is surrealist by nature (ii). The series of 'Migrant Mother' is perhaps one of the best situation that can characterize this definition. From the knowledge gathered from Thompson herself and her family members, one can see that the situation that Lange created about her – the poor mother of the hungry children, a victim of the Depression Era, a passive and sorrowful woman- is an illusion. In fact, Thompson was a very proud woman who works hard through her life not to give away her children and become dependent to other people for help and she was also an activist and organizer of farmer strikes. Beside her strong personality, according to her children, she was also a happy woman who love to have fun, even though her life was a very hard one:

"Mother was a woman who loved to enjoy life, who loved her children," said, she loved music and she loved to dance. (iii)

This description is contrary to the woman who was transform into the most known and powerful icon of the FSA's propaganda. That's also a fact that she resented this photograph and her portrayal like a victim through her life as she confessed in her letter to the newspaper. But even today, her image in the society is the one created by Lange. This brings the question of the immortality of the photograph that Sontag writes about in 'Melancholy Objects'. As soon as a photograph of someone is taken, this photograph make the person immortal and, in this situation, change her status and appearance in the history: transform her into a 'Melancholy Object'. Like Sontag stated in 'Melancholy Objects': “In America, the photographer is not simply the person who records the past but the one who invents it.” (iv)

This aspect bring the question of reality in documentary photography. American Social Documentary style came to dominance in an era when photographs were still considered mostly as documents; as the truth itself. Therefore, in the era that this photographs, among many other photographs by FSA's photographers, were taken, they were considered as the absolute truth and the manipulation that the photographer may have done in the photographs, either by framing or posing the models, where never thought or discussed. But, with the contemporary point of view about the status of photography and documentary, we can know see that Lange in fact altered the real life of Thompson and even created a fictional story for her, convenient to her and FSA's aim. On the other hand, Lange and other major photographers worked for FSA also considered that even having a style is inconvenient to the social documentary. In the position of these photographs as art objects, this would not cause a problem, but in their position in the era -and the position given by their photographer- as the documents of the reality, this is a big problematic area in the ethics of photography.

3. The Melancholy Objects and their Ethical Rights

The fight that Florence Owens Thompson and her children gave against the photograph of Lange shows the problem of ethics in documentary photography; first of all, in Lange's photograph, Thompson was portrayed as someone else who she later declared her resentment against. The other ethical problem about the way of taking this photograph is Lange's approach towards her. She didn't regard her as an individual human being; as an American citizen who has the right not to be photographed -especially in her vulnerable situation- which will later become an article of Human Rights. For her, she was the proof of the poverty caused by the Big Depression; she was a 'melancholy object'. According to Sontag again, the tendency of social documentary in America is only the 'class tourism' (v) of the bourgeoisie; of the middle class. Though in her account of the instance Lange explained: “There she... seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality” (vi), the situation didn't present any equality at all. Lange was the middle-class photographer and 'a well-dressed woman... with a large camera' who came with 'a shiny new car' (vii) and Thompson was the poor and helpless migrant mother. Lange didn't ask her name, therefore she stayed nameless for the history for a long time; she wasn't a person, she was a mere propaganda object. According to Thompson's letter to the editor, Lange promised her that the photographs will never be published and only used to improve the situation of the camp and its inhabitants. At this point, Lange saw no problem in lying to Thompson or transforming her into an anonymous icon. She was from now on the icon of poverty and helplessness of migrant workers in America. Although a lot of people found courage and dignity in her presence, with the title giving by Lange, she was stripped of her dignity.

Along with the other photographs of the series, the photograph that brings the question of ethics the most is the third photograph titled "Nipomo, Calif. Mar. 1936. Migrant agricultural worker's family. Seven hungry children. Mother aged 32. Father is a native Californian."

In the conventional photography as well as the cinema, women have two major roles; women as sexual object and women as mother. One is created by the patriarchate norms to feed the fetishism of the spectator, while the other one is a continued tradition of the 'Madonna' in Christian belief. These two strictly different roles never come together, therefore the breast-feeding is a 'sacred' activity, no matter how open the art is, it stays as a taboo to show a woman breast-feeding, because breasts are sexual objects by nature, but breast-feeding is considered as 'sacred' almost as 'divine'. This photo that shows Thompson breast-feeding takes away all her privacy and put her in an extremely vulnerable position, especially through the moral codes of the society of the era. In the 30's -even today- a naked woman breast is considered as eroticism or pornography in photography and cinema, placing that woman in an 'unmoral' position. The only exception of this moral code is in photographing the tribal topless women in Africa. This exception doesn't present any moral or traditional problem, because, first of all, being topless is considered normal on their own tradition; so even though they can be threated as sexual objects by the spectator, it's not an exploitation of women according to the Western Civilization and the photographer can protect himself from these accusations by simply saying that he just documented the situation. On the other hand, this is not exploitation, because for the spectator of these photographs, they are not individual persons, but exotic commodities. The photographer therefore only portray and introduce these exotic commodities; so the spectator can know about them.

In Lange's photographs, Thompson is also an exotic commodity, an unknown to the middle class Americans, therefore portraying her with naked breasts caused no ethical problem for Lange. But for the critics today, seeing a human being like an exotic commodity who she can use according to her propagandist purpose and violate her personal rights cause a problem. In the turbulent atmosphere of the Depression Era, this was not yet a problem to discuss, but today photography critics see the Social Documentary era in a new light and can study Lange's methods and purpose more freely.


Sontag, Susan, 2002 (1977), “Melancholy Objects”, On Photography, New York, Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, p. 52

Lange, Dorothea, February 1960 “The Assignment I'll Never Forget: Migrant Mother,” Popular Photography

Sprague, Roger, Sr., “The Migrant Mother: The Story as told by her Grandson”, Web site: (accessed: March 18 2008)

Natanson, Barbara O., "Exploring Contexts: Migrant Mother" in American Women: A Gateway to Library of Congress Resources for the Study of Women's History and Culture in the United States. Web site: (accessed: March 18 2008)

Dunn, Geoffrey, "Photographic License." New Times: San Luis Obispo (2002)

i, vi Lange, Dorothea, February 1960 “The Assignment I'll Never Forget: Migrant Mother,” Popular Photography

ii Sontag, Susan, 2002 (1977), “Melancholy Objects”, On Photography, New York, Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, p. 52

iii Geoffrey Dunn, “Photographic License,” San Jose Metro, January 19-25, 1995, p. 22

iv Sontag, Susan, 2002 (1977), “Melancholy Objects”, On Photography, New York, Farrar, Strauss, Giroux,p. 67

v For more information on class tourism, see Sontag, Susan, 2002 (1977), “Melancholy Objects”, On Photography, New York, Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, p.54-68

vii Roger Srague, Sr., “The Migrant Mother: The Story as told by her Grandson”,

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