Test your knowledge with a quiz
Lange, Migrant Mother
- In this iconic photograph, Dorothea Lange captured the suffering of migrant workers affected by the Dust Bowl and the economic fallout of the Great Depression. Lange highlights the impact of these events on farmers and agricultural laborers, who were less visible than urban unemployed masses.
- With as much as 25% of Americans unemployed during the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal created a social safety net and spurred economic growth. Lange was commissioned by the Resettlement Administration (which later became the Farm Security Administration) to capture images that would rally support for these new government programs. The immediate success of this photograph brought much-needed assistance to these farm workers.
- Lange’s photograph documents an economic story, but also creates a personal narrative. By closely framing the distant gaze of the woman, surrounded by her children, she encourages our empathy. The photograph is both a factual record and an interpretive work of art.
- Lange’s subject, Florence Owens Thompson, was living in northern California, a destination for many displaced migrant farm workers who were often referred to by the derogatory term, “Okies.” Her story, however, is more complicated since Thompson had been in California for nearly a decade. She was also Cherokee, so her family had most likely been forced to relocate to Oklahoma under the Indian Removal Act of 1830, connecting her to a larger history of American migration and displacement.
More to think about
Dorothea Lange used photography as an activist, building empathy and awareness through her images. Think about a current social issue that is important to you. Are there visual images that have influenced the way you feel about this issue? Why do you think photography might be an effective tool of persuasion?
In the video, we see other photographs that Dorothea Lange took of Florence Owens Thompson. Imagine that you are writing a letter to the Farm Security Administration, suggesting that they use this particular picture. What argument would you make?
Dorothea Lange’s photograph documents reality, but also encourages the viewer to interpret what is happening. Each week, The New York Times publishes a photograph without a caption and invites students to discuss what they see and what they think it means. Visit https://www.nytimes.com/column/learning-whats-going-on-in-this-picture and join a moderated conversation about how photographs can tell stories.