Documentary and Social Reform

Following on from looking at the apparent 'truth' of a photograph comes how this 'truth' can be depicted in documentary photography; specifically its use in arguments surrounding the need for social reform.

Dorothea Lange's photograph of Florence Thompson as the 'Migrant Mother' is a particularly well-known image taken from her work on the FSA project.

Dorothea Lange's photograph of Florence Thompson as the 'Migrant Mother' is a particularly well-known image taken from her work on the FSA project.

The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was an agency set up in the United States to investigate and address the problems suffered by farmers affected by the Great Depression in the early 1930s. Part of the work carried out by the agency was a program of photography intended to show the hardship and privation suffered by the people the FSA intended to help; sharecroppers, tenants, poor farmers and the rural poor in general. The photography was designed to give the wider a public a better idea of the suffering these people were experiencing. It can be described as documentary photography as the program was designed to create a record of the poverty of rural Americans during this time. This record could then be used not only to inform others of the plight of these people, but could also be used as a device for educating future generations. The agency wasn't all about photography, in fact photography played a relatively small part, but a number of the photographs taken by those who worked on the project have become well known, such as the iconic 'Migrant Mother' shown above.

The FSA had an agenda of course, and this agenda inevitably made the work they produced subjective. The photographers were guided to produce work of a particular type and consequently the images we see from the work is not the whole story of rural life in 1930s America. It is quite possibly accurate and a fair representation but it is still subjective and has a particular slant to it; although this was indeed its purpose. Few people were interested in farmers who were doing ok and had nothing to complain about. The ultimate goal of the photography program within the FSA was to 'introduce America to the Americans'  by showing them the plight of their fellow citizens , and this it did. In the end though the FSA wasn't deemed a success but over 100,000 of the 250,000 or photographs taken during the program are still available to see and are indeed a lasting reminder of the hardships suffered by so many people during this time.

Lewis Hine is an example of a 'socially aware' photographer who used truthful images to reveal to the wider world the hardships suffered by many people during the early part of the 20th century. In particular his work showed the plight of children in the workplace; child labour is something which today is not only regarded as unacceptable but in many countries is also a crime. Hine's agenda was one of social reform and his work is often deemed to have raised awareness of the issue and helped change the laws when it came to child labour. However, not everyone agreed that by showing this disparity in welfare between the well off and the poor actually helped bring about fundamental change. Although there has clearly been an improvement in the social conditions of children and the poor in the minority world (by this I mean the more commonly used terms of 'western', 'northern hemisphere' or 'civilised' world), the rising inequality in these countries, and the continued suffering of the poor and vulnerable in the majority world (i.e. 'third world', 'southern hemisphere') shows that the fundamental goals for which Hine was striving for are still to be fully realised. On the face of it, the work of the FSA and that of Hine could be seen as very similar (and indeed it was in the sense that they were both striving for improvements in the welfare of the less well off) but whereas the FSA were selective in what they chose to depict, Hine was more objective and 'truthful'; he wasn't working to a commissioned brief as were the photographers working for the FSA, his personal brief was simply to reveal the truth of the situation. There is the possibility that 'misleading' the public with staged images or by using images which only fit the agenda could be seen as disingenuous and potentially lose the support they were aiming for.


Wikipedia. (2016). Farm Security Administration. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Apr. 2016]. (2016). Farm Security Administration – Dictionary definition of Farm Security Administration | FREE online dictionary. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Apr. 2016].