It was 1936 and the US was in a time of great depression. Dorothea Lange was travelling the countryside with her husband, an economics professor studying the economic conditions. Dorothea, a trained photographer, would take pictures while her husband conducted interviews and provide them free to newspapers to highlight the depth of the problem the country was undergoing. After spotting this impoverished mother with her young children, and without much discussion on either side, Lange took a series of six pictures, the above, Migrant Mother, going on to symbolise the plight of the intransient and poor.
This photo was later identified as being a portrait of Florence Owens Thompson. a 32-year-old widow who earned 50 cents for every 100 pounds of cotton she picked. There is an interesting recorded interview with her that can be found here.
This image really demonstrates the power imbalance between photographer and subject. When asked about the image, which became hugely famous and contributed to Lange being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in photography, Florence Thompson is quoted as saying:
"I wish she hadn't taken my picture. I can't get a penny out of it. She didn't ask my name. She said she wouldn't sell the pictures. She said she'd send me a copy. She never did."
Lange's actions brought attention to a serious problem, and even prompted the Federal Goverment to send much needed aide to the area. The photograph took on a life of its own, drawing people in with it's stark reality. So should she be forgiven for taking advantage of Thompson? Is the greater good that she achieved worth the shame that the picture's popularity caused the children in it, who felt stigmatised as lower-class poor?
When Florence Thompson was ill and dying, a campaign was mounted to come to her aid and 2,000 letters arived bringing the family over $35,000 from people who had been uplifted and inspired by the portrait. Florence's son Troy said this:
"None of us ever really understood how deeply Mama’s photo affected people. I guess we had only looked at it from our perspective. For Mama and us, the photo had always been a bit of curse. After all those letters came in, I think it gave us a sense of pride."
You can find the entire series Lange shot of Thompson here. As an interesting contrast, here is a picture of of Thompson and her daughters taken many years after the depression had ended: