When the government plays a role to raise the weak and underprivileged it’s typically due to a call to action. In the past, the call came from a single frame – the photograph.
Bourke-White turned her camera to the southern part of the United States as she and her husband, Ernest Caldwell produced the book, “You Can See Their Faces.”
Lange and Rothstein were part of the legendary stable of photographers at the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the New Deal. The Farm Security Administration was created in the Department of Agriculture in 1937. The FSA and its predecessor, the Resettlement Administration (RA), were designed to assist poor farmers during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Lange and Rothstein were sent out to document conditions nationwide and help build public support for government improvement programs. Roy Emerson Stryker, head of a special photographic section in the RA and FSA from 1935-1942, made sure that his photographers were well briefed on their assigned areas before being sent out. He also ensured that they were properly funded. Stryker likewise made sure that mainstream publications had access to FSA photographs. Combined both helped focus public attention on the plight of the rural poor and set up the commercial careers of his photographers. As a number of art historians have pointed out, Dorothea Lange achieved a brilliant balance between a collective portrait of humanity and one of an individual.
Ultimately, without seeing the plight of these farmers, those tilling for their livelihood, those with the ability to help a fellow man would have been left uninformed. The photograph then as now summed up the story in a simple way to cause understanding, compassion, concern and most important – action.