Many years after Dorothea Lange took her iconic “Migrant Mother” photograph in 1936, the portrait of a troubled mother with her bashful children remains one of the most important images of The Great Depression. Anyone who doesn’t know yet can’t help but wonder about the story behind her worried expression and distracted gaze. Where was this photographed? Who was she? Was she looking after the children by herself? Why did she look so distraught?
In this video (see below) from American History TV, we get a glimpse of the scenes Lange encountered while documenting pea picking in Nipomo, California in March 1936. The so-called “Migrant Mother” was identified as Florence Thompson, one of the migrant workers who set up camps en route to their relocation. Bad weather had frozen the crops and the pickers were out of jobs, forcing them to live with what little they had in these run-down outdoor camps.
According to Thompson’s grandson, she set up camp near the edge of the road with her children while waiting for her husband and older son to come back with items to patch their broken car. Without any means of communication with them, Florence and the rest of the family had to stay by the roadside so they could be easily located. However, with migrant workers being unpopular and unwanted in California at the time, it also made them vulnerable to townspeople or farmers who didn’t want them camping around their towns and properties. Police were even hired to clear their groups and make them move on to the other parts of the state or county.
Lange had a gift for striking up conversations and engaging her subjects before promptly blending into the environment, allowing her to photograph them closely and candidly. Her other photographs from this encounter reflect this flair for connecting with people, revealing the scenes and atmosphere that complete Lange’s “Migrant Mother” story: the poor living conditions migrant workers had to endure, forced by utter poverty into a lowly nomadic life for a very long time.
PBS shares that Lange also wrote down snippets of her conversations with Thompson, who allowed her to take photographs under the condition that her name will not be published. “’We just existed. We survived. Let’s put it that way.’ I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that [she and her children] had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food.”
Today, Lange and her famous work remain at the forefront of photojournalism as one of the prime examples of compelling visual storytelling. In fact, documentary photography at present still follows the formula set by Lange and her contemporaries: humanizing life’s biggest tragedies, connecting with subjects to capture their best expressions and raw emotions, and making sure each shot is a story on its own.