Migrant Mother

"Migrant Mother" (1936) Dorothea Lange
“Migrant Mother” (1936)
Dorothea Lange

Photography has historically been a medium of art that spreads messages related to social justice issues. We have already seen the case of Alix Smith as well as Jacob Riis, not to mention JR‘s nontraditional take on the medium. Perhaps some of the power of photography comes from its documentary nature. Photography can put a personal face on issues, it can present you not with overwhelming facts and figures, but with the piercing eyes of a woman who can’t feed her children.

Dorothea Lange, a photographer known for her work during the Depression, used her photography to bring the experiences of sharecroppers, displaced farm families, and migrant workers to public attention. The above photograph, also titled “Human Erosion in California”, was taken by Lange in a pea-picker’s camp in 1936. Lange, in an interview in 1960, recalls meeting the woman and claims “She and her children had been living on frozen vegetables from the field and wild birds the children caught. The pea crop had frozen; there was no work. Yet they could not move on, for she had just sold the tires from the car to buy food.” While there is some dispute as to whether this account is accurate, Lange’s portrait of this woman is striking. After this photo was published in the San Francisco News, the government was alerted to the plight of the workers and rushed in with 20,000 pounds of food to rescue workers. The photography of Dorothea Lange, like the photography of so many others, truly demonstrates the power of art in enacting social change.

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