Reportage

The Apathy of the Unwanted

The Life and Photographs of Dorothea Lange..

dl-fourDorothea Lange was one of America’s great photojournalists, her images taken during the Great Depression of the 1930s played a vital role in documenting the country’s bleakest period in which so many Americans suffered during the longest worldwide economic downturn of the last century.

From 1935 until 1944 the Farm Security Administration (FSA) worked tirelessly to fight poverty in America using a network of photojournalists to record the plight of those worst affected by the Depression in a bid to raise awareness and bring some small relief to families living below the poverty line. Dorothea Lange was one of those photographers who helped create the FSA legend.

Tens of thousands of rural land workers were displaced as a result of both financial market collapse and drought which forced them to leave their homes and head, often mistakenly for pastures new where they believed a better life lay in wait, it didn’t. Lange captured the mood of the nomads quite brilliantly. In one interview she recalled a man telling her: “We hold ourselves to be decent folks. We don’t want no relief. But what we do want is a chanst (SIC) to make an honest living like what we was raised”.

dl-twoLange had a sympathetic eye, her images portrayed the caring, sensitive side to her. It would be hard for anyone not to be moved by what she saw on a daily basis but neither she nor her subjects wailed for sympathy or wallowed in self-pity. They simply wanted a way out and a chance to work and provide a shelter for their families. She would quote one migrant as saying “I’ve wrote back that we’re well and such as that, but I never have wrote that we live in a tent”. That sense of pride and self-determination is difficult to imagine given the circumstances of their suffering but Lange found it on a number of occasions.

It is near impossible in today’s world to understand the hardship of the journeys these people undertook in the name of job seeking. Crossing hundreds of miles to arrive in a town they knew about through hearsay alone. Dorothea Lange managed to capture that sense of desperate determination as they crossed a vast, barren landscape.

dl-threeUnsurprisingly, nobody suffered during the Depression more than the Negro. Those lucky enough to work could never earn enough to pay back the money borrowed from unscrupulous landowners for basic commodities such as food and simple clothing. Their disadvantage was there for the taking.

Lange would not hesitate to champion the rights of the black person wherever she could and would recite a particular ‘black’ poem to add weight to her images; “A jot’s a jot, a figgers a figger. All for the white man, and none for the nigger”. The black workers more often than not worked tirelessly for a pittance, they were the butt of upper class white jokes and subjects for depraved cruelty by the tobacco-chewing White Supremacists from the Deep South. These families would toil for hours upon hours in the fields as ‘negro sharecroppers’ for less than 65 cents per day. Lange managed to win the trust of her subjects and the result was at once, unique, heart-breaking and serve many years later as a reminder of how far we have come in a relatively short space of time. But this was not a depression exclusively for the black man and woman, white families suffered too and Lange proved a master at showing the struggle to cope with the loss of dignity for both men and women.

She was born in 1895 to second-generation German immigrants, carrying a permanent limp as a result of contracting polio as a child, her own life was not short of personal hardship. Twice married, she died in 1965 following several years of illness linked to her polio condition. In 2008 she was posthumously inducted into the California Hall of Fame by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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