The Face of
Era, A Mother of Change

In an age
where photographs of every meal are taken and “selfie”, a word for taking a
photograph of oneself, was Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year, it is easy to
see how the cliché phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” has arguably
lost nearly all meaning. It is easy to think that modern mass production of
photographs has decreased the value and meaning behind each photo, but in
reality the power of the photograph has only appeared to take on a new form.

Photography’s power has always been its influence on people.  The modern emergence of new marketing
strategies, entire companies and the expedited rise of social media can all be
attributed to photography, no matter how petty it may seem. This same influence
on people is evident even decades ago, during the Dust Bowl. A bleak and tragic
time during the Great Depression, when “in the heartland of the U.S. poor soil
conservation practices and extreme weather conditions” exacerbated the existing
misery of the Great Depression and instigated the largest migration in American
history.1  These days it is hard to imagine how a single
photograph could not only encompass the struggle and strife of migrants during
that era but also trigger great change. Part of series of several photos taken
of Frances Owens Thompson and her children, the one named Migrant Mother became the iconic photograph associated with the
era. Dorothea Lange both humanized the migrant workers of the Dust Bowl, who
had to overcome oppression from not only nature but also their fellow man, and
illustrated some of the social and political changes of the Dust Bowl, by
capturing the essence of their struggle through her photograph, Migrant Mother.


Owens Thompson’s distressed expression and gaunt appearance in Migrant Mother convey the physical and
emotional toil that she bore, representing the struggle of migrant workers
during the Dust Bowl. Like the majority of migrant workers, Thompson travelled
across country to find petty work to barely make a living. Around the time the
photo was taken, Thompson was at migrant worker camp where the pea crop at
Nipomo, California had frozen and there was no work for anybody, explaining her
concerned appearance as she looks off into the distance.2
Her gauntness and apprehension served as an accurate representation of the
malnourishment many migrant workers suffered from due to lack of resources,
especially food, and poor sanitary conditions that created a public health
“Thompson had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields,
birds that the children killed, and had just sold the tires from her car to buy
food”, extreme measures many workers were forced to take in this camps that
were meant to be refuges for them.4  These camps were places of great despair and
filled with uncertainty of the future, a message Migrant Mother expresses
through the distressed expression on Thompson’s face. It is also possible to
see the sense of entrapment Thompson felt from having nowhere but this camp to
go to since, interclass tension and discriminatory attitudes toward migrant
workers from contemporary urban journalists’ portrayals of rural life and California
farmers in general kept them apart from the rest of society.5  The common term for migrant workers at the
time was “pea pickers”, which is a derogatory term used to alienate a group as
lower class, uneducated, unskilled and employable only in trivial,
labor-intensive jobs, such as harvesting crops and as such, were entitled to
minimal wages for working extensively under dreadful conditions. The open use
of derogatory terms against them meant that once they left the terrible migrant
camps, they were in a world unwelcome to them. Katherine McIntosh, one of
Thompson’s children grasping onto her in Migrant
Mother, recalled how “Local kids would tease them, telling them to clean up
and bathe…We’d go home and cry.”6  Being trapped in destitute migrant camps
drained the life out of migrant workers, a sense a misery captured in Migrant Mother. The struggles and their
total captured in Migrant Mother,
help not only represent the migrant workers of the time but humanize them.


The misery and exhaustion of a
mother, Florence Owens Thompson, captured in Migrant Mother helped humanize and expedite change for the migrant
workers across the country. In Migrant
Mother, Thompson supports two of her children as she desperation stretches
across her face. Since having a mother is common to all, it makes sense that
such an image would evoke empathy across America. Adding a mother gave a human
face to a political and economic issue. Although seemingly arbitrary, having
Thompson openly display that she is a mother was crucial in the effectiveness
of Migrant Mother as a cry for help
from the migrant workers to the rest of American. The appearance of a mother
made the seemingly incomprehensible and insurmountable issues of the mid-1930s easier
to digest and instigated a new sense of drive and passion towards reform. Articles
even centered on the fact that she was a mother such as the San Francisco Chronicle’s “What Does the
‘New Deal’ Mean to This Mother and Her Children?”.7
Many of the middle-class viewers wanted to tend to the needs of impoverished
children seen in the photograph.8
Thompson gained the iconic status as a “New Deal Madonna,” on account of the
parallels she shared with depictions of the Virgin Mary and Christ in humble
surroundings, and despite her unmarried status.9
Citizens became much more sympathetic towards migrant workers, replacing the
former hostility, as they could now almost envision themselves as facing the
same issues. This led to the widespread recognition that the problem of poverty
will not be solved by helping only the Migrant
Mother, and reforms are unlikely to gain support if it cannot be assented
to by citizens habituated to see themselves as individuals last, thus
refocusing on the greater good and not the individual troubles of the middle
and upper classes.10
This empathy rooted not only in the truth that they all had mothers, but also
since she appeared to white to the middle and upper class. Since the majority
of the middle and upper class was white this eased racial prejudice against the
migrant worker class. Although the effect of this assumption was positive, in
that it stirred sympathy from the previously hostile middle to upper classes,
it was false as Thompson was Cherokee, raised in the Tahlequah Indian Territory
by her Cherokee mother and Choctaw stepfather.11
This humanization even lead to some near immediate changes. Within days of the
publication of the photograph in newspapers, the federal government shipped food
to the Nipomo pea-picker camp, but by the time the food arrived Thompson and
her family, the stars of the photograph, had moved on.12
The government would continue to supply migrant camps with the new fervor that was
brought about by Migrant Mother.


Just as Migrant Mother called for change through
the exposition of dehumanization, it captured the changes already occurring in
the mid-1930s. The ambiguity of Florence Owens Thompson’s backstory in Migrant Mother lead to disagreements
over her situation, and the opposing views in those disagreements reveal the ongoing
shift in the roles of women. The Dust Bowl strained the traditional patriarchal
household that the 1920s already weakened as more and more women entered the
workforce. The ambiguity of Migrant
Mother creates an argument for both sides, the progressive, feminist side
or the conservative, patriarchal side. In the photograph, there is a
conspicuous lack of a father figure. Some would presume that he was working or
at least looking for work to support the family, as the traditional ought to
do, but others would consider abandonment or death and that it was the mother
who was supporting the family.13
This disagreement proved to favor the latter more progressive form of thinking.

The Dust Bowl made it so women were unable to ensure a safe haven for and nurture
children as they are traditionally accustomed to doing. This lead to a divide
in the shift women’s role: a progressive side in which women turned to labor
and work to provide money for the family or primitive side where women had to
gather food for their children. In Migrant
Mother there is a mother who is being grasped by her children and appears
to be concerned as to how she is going to feed them, displaying how a woman is
concerned about child welfare. This is confirmed by Katherine McIntosh who
stated that Thompson always “made sure us kids ate” even if it meant she would
not eat.14
Some even venture to argue that because it paralleled the Madonna-and-child
image it was backed by conservative family values which limited the kind of
political changed being advocated by the documentary photographs.15
At the same time, a feminist viewer would see a mother who is visibly strained,
tired and alone. She is concerned as she looks into the distance wondering how
she would make money to support her family. This more progressive interpretation
focuses on how a woman may be laboring independently to provide for her family,
which is supported by McIntosh calling Thompson the real “backbone of our
family.”16 Both
in interpretation and reality Migrant
Mother exhibit traits and struggles of all women at the time it was taken.

Lange’s humanization of migrant workers through Florence Owens Thompson in “Migrant
Woman” brought about change by capturing and exposing the changes and struggles
migrant workers and women faced at the time. It is through this single
photograph, one can understand the struggles of a class and the changes going
on at that time. It is this kind of understanding and influence that holds the
worth of a picture, something that is timeless and can act as a window into
another person or time period. Lange’s instinct and skills as a photographer lead
her to take the photograph which acts as vessel Thompson fills with the toils
and triumphs of the era which together make Migrant
Mother an iconic and accurate representation of the American culture in the

Works Cited

Briggs, Laura. “Mother, Child,
Race, Nations: The Visual Iconography and the Politics
of Transnational and Transracial Adoption.” Gender and History       15 (2003): 179-200. Accessed December 8,
2017. ite=ehost-live.

Curtis, James C. “Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, and the Culture of the      Great Depression.” Winterthur Portfolio
21(1986): 1-20. Accessed      December 3,

Fanslow, Robin. “Voices from the
Dust Bowl: the Charles L. Todd and Robert    Sonkin
Migrant Worker Collection, 1940 to 1941.” Accessed October    29, 2017.                           1940-to-1941/articles-and-essays/the-migrant-experience/.

Gutierrez, Thelma and Wayne Drash.

“Girl from Iconic Great Depression photo: ‘We
were ashamed’.” Cable News Network. December
3, 2008. Accessed    October 29, 2017.

Jentleson, Katherine “The Misrecognition
of Migrant Mother.” Last modified    November 25, 2012. Accessed December 3, 2017,   misrecognition-of-migrant-mother/.

Lange, Dorothea. Migrant Mother. 1936. From Library of
Congress, America from       the Great
Depression to World War II: Black–and-White Photographs from      FSA-OWI, 1935-1945,    

Lange, Dorothea. “The Assignment I’ll Never Forget.” Popular Photography 46, February 1960. Accessed October 29, 2017.     pdf.

Library of Congress. “The Dust Bowl
– Teacher’s Guide.” Accessed October      29 2017.  bowl-migration/pdf/teacher_guide.pdf.

John Louis and Robert Hariman, “Visual Rhetoric, Photojournalism,   and Democratic Public Culture.” Rhetoric Review 20(2001):37-42. Accessed December 3, 2017.                                     

Francisco Chronicle. “What Does the ‘New Deal’ Mean to This Mother and    Her Children?” March 11, 1936. Accessed
on December 3, 2017.      

Carl. “A True Picture of Hard Times: Photo of Poverty Sells For a       Stack of Riches.” Daily Press. November 12, 2002. Accessed October 29,   2017.   1_migrant-worker-contemporary-dollars-migrant-mother-photograph/2.


I'm Katy!

Would you like to get a custom essay? How about receiving a customized one?

Check it out