Monday, 25 August 2014

21 & Research Point: The Farm Security Administration

Before starting this piece of work I thought I understood the photographs of the Farm Security Administration – they were a simple documentary of how tough life was for poor Americans in the mid-west between the wars. And yet, the more I read the more tenuous the idea of the work as documentary becomes. In general the majority of web commentary I have read casts the project (which was just a subset of the actual FSA project) as intended to document the life I mention above Wikipedia captures it as “Photographers and writers were hired to report and document the plight of poor farmers.” (Wikipedia contributors, 2014)

Set against this Price in (Wells, 2009) suggests that the initial role of the photographers in the project was to provide images of workers rather than the displaced poor – and that this latter activity was chosen by the photographers themselves once they were on the road.

The archive itself is huge having been combined with the Office of War Information collection, featuring the work of commissioned photographers and work collected from other sources. In total there are 175,000 B/W negatives, 107,000 prints and around 1600 colour transparencies. (Library of Congress, N/A). Perhaps given this it is not surprising that a curator with a story they wish to tell can select images to create a particular narrative. More surprising to me was the extent to which the individual photographers manipulated scenes to tell the same story as outlined by Curtis (Curtis, 2003).

In some sense this is inevitable – the nature of some of the equipment used meant that the quick “candid” photo was essentially unobtainable. In another sense it was perhaps “essential” – if the photographers wished to identify these people and their conditions as something we could relate to they had to emphasise their ordinariness – the sense in which we could be them. In this sense they are very different from the photos of Hine/Riis – they are not pictures of others they are pictures of people like us.

Were the individuals in the photos exploited? That is more difficult to say. I see no suggestions in the reading I have done that the photographers sought out the subjects that would give them most prominence. Yet as Curtis notes (Curtis, 2003) there are examples where the actual position of the subjects has been betrayed in order to provide the required effect (Curtis cites examples where African-Americans and Mexicans were subject to this treatment). It is also arguable that the subjects themselves were fully aware of the use to which the photos would be put. Florence Thompson, the subject of Lange’s iconic Migrant Mother was apparently assured that the photo would not be published for example. (Williams, 2013)

To add to the complexity of the ethical argument the individuals in some of these photos have been traced, re-photographed and publicised. It is not clear that this attention is necessarily welcome and certainly adds a voyeuristic element to the original images which was perhaps not intended.
Perhaps in a nutshell this is what the FSA photographs illustrate best. It does not matter what the original intent of the photographer was – once the photos are “in the wild” the incomplete nature of photos as documents means they are open to re-interpretation and re-use in a whole range of ways.

Curtis, J., 2003. Making Sense of Documentary Photography. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 25 August 2014].
Library of Congress, N/A. The FSA-OWI Collection Background and Scope of the Collection. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 25 August 2014].
Wells, L., 2009. Photography: A Critical Introduction. 4th ed. Abingdon: Routledge.
Wikipedia contributors, 2014. Farm Security Administration. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 25 August 2014].
Williams, V., 2013. What Makes Great Photography. 2nd ed. London: Frances Lincoln.

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