Sunday 4 January 2009

On Reading Photographs (3)

In February or March 1936, during the Great Depression, the photographer Dorothea Lange took her probably most famous photo: the "Migrant Mother". It showed Florence Owens Thompson, then 32, and her children. Lange was at the time travelling through Nipomo, California, on assignment for the Resettlement Administration to take photographs of migrant farm workers.

Katherine McIntosh
Copyright Gregg Canes / CNN

Katherine McIntosh is the girl to the left of her mother; she was four when the picture was taken. She said to CNN (3 December 2008) that it brought shame - and determination - to her family. "She asked my mother if she could take her picture -- that ... her name would never be published, but it was to help the people in the plight that we were all in, the hard times ... So mother let her take the picture, because she thought it would help ... The picture came out in the paper to show the people what hard times was. People was starving in that camp. There was no food ... We were ashamed of it. We didn't want no one to know who we were."

This is one of the dilemmas of the socially inclined photographers: their subjects often do not want to be shown as the photographer wants them to show. Walker Evans, who, like Lange, worked for the Resettlement Administration, took photos of sharecroppers in Alabama. He portrayed them in their daily lives, at times with worn-out clothes, dirty feet, uncombed and unshaven for he also wanted to document the circumstances they were living in. That seems however not have been to their liking for there exists one photo (that Evans however never used in his publications) which shows the family clean and combed and in their Sunday best. One can safely assume that it was taken at the request of the family.

Despite my deep sympathy for socially inclined photographers, when the ones portrayed feel ashamed about their portraits then there clearly is something wrong with this kind of photography.

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