People Surveys – Research Point – The FSA

There is a lot of reference to the FSA from the outset in this coursework so I have already written and read quite a bit about it, but will add some more bits n bobs here.

Many photographers were involved within this project, which was very political in its motives. Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal aimed to deal with the effects of the Great Depression. The photographic evidence gathered by the FSA, formerly The Resettlement Administration, was essential to help gain public support for the New Deal legislation. This enterprise became the ‘best example of a major state-funded documentary project in the world’. (Wells, 1997. p.81)

The FSA photography group consisted of Theodor Jung, Edwin Rosskam, Louise Rosskam, Ben Shahn, John Collier, Sheldon Dick, Ann Rosener, Jack Delano, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein, John Vachon and Marion Post Wolcott.

Information can be found here  with regards to the work they undertook for the FSA.

So I need to look at some of the work undertaken by a few of these photographers and consider if the photographers were exploiting their subjects… Lets have a look at the definition of exploit…

1.make full use of and derive benefit from (a resource).

“500 companies sprang up to exploit this new technology”
synonyms: utilize, make use of, put to use, use, use to good advantage, turn/put to good use, make the most of, capitalize on, benefit from, turn to account, draw on; More

2.make use of (a situation) in a way considered unfair or underhand.
“the company was exploiting a legal loophole”

Reading those two definitions I would say that, yes, they were. They made full use of and derived benefit from the photographs they took, some of the photographers gained more that others, and the main drive was to benefit the FSA and in turn the farmers. History has shown us that not that many workers/farmers lives improved that dramatically and the numbers who directly benefited was small compared to those who were suffering. As Rosler informed us about Florence Thompson (our Migrant Mother) ‘she was proud to be the subject of the photograph, but that she had never made a penny out of it and that it had done her no good (Rosler, 1989:315).

Similar to the reports of Avedon’s sitters that they had been proud to participate in his body of work and be invited to the opening exhibition.

The FSA photographers were directed to capture certain images in a certain way, although they had no control over the final selected shots; even with some freedoms they certainly manipulated the truth, by using certain signifiers and framing in order to gather the evidence needed for the agency. According to Sontag (2008, p.62) the FSA project was ‘unabashedly propagandistic’ with Stryker ‘coaching his team about the attitude they were to take toward their problem subject’.

Margaret Bourke-White’s image  Sharecroppers Home (1937) is one such example. The newspapers used on the wall for insulation in this instance are used to show ‘elements of white consumer America…the American Dream…’ from which the black child is ‘excluded’. The photograph is not just about ‘poverty, but also about injustice…inequalities…constructed to make us question…’ (Clarke, 1997. P.149)

All images had to be submitted, the control over what was released was again in the hands of the ‘dominant class’ and they chose the face of the ‘under class’ and how we viewed the Great Depression, ‘ the archive has been used as a resource from which some photographs have been more often selected than others…our sense of the project is constructed from the editing…’.(Wells, 1997. p.81)

Selective choice of images from Lange…

Dorothea Lange: Mother and baby of family on the road. Tulelake, Siskiyou County, California. 1939.

Explanatory notes read:

The car is parked outside the Employment Office. The family have arrived, before opening of the potato season. They have been on the road for one month–have sick baby.

…Father washed the baby’s face with edge of blanket dampened from canteen, for the photographs.

Both are truths…one is more realistic…which would you choose to show the situation, the feelings…?

However, some images were used to misinform such as Arthur Rothstein’s photograph Gee’s Bend 1937 where he was ‘instructed to photograph the community as if there had been no [such] assistance’ (Curtis, 2003).

Arthur Rothstein, Negroes, descendants of former slaves of the Pettway Plantation, Gees Bend, Alabama, 1937

There were more racial undertones to this image as well which I shall cover in the separate post regards the Curtis article.

More examples of what we aren’t typically shown…people smiling, dressed smartly and having fun!

To complicate matters, adding to the ethical debate as illustrated above and in previous research, the individuals, and descendants, in some of these original images have been traced, re-photographed and publicised. At what point should we leave things alone? Does this further attention add a voyeuristic element? Is it important to understand the perspective now to gain further insights into the history of the events as they unfolded as well as the history of documentary photography?

Once they had completed the agency work was it right for individual photographers to go on and make money off of the back of poverty, write books etc? Wright Morris in In Our Image wrote:

In the photographer’s aspiration to be an ‘artist’ does he enlarge his own image at the expense of the photograph?


Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph: A visual and cultural history. New York: Oxford University Press.

FSA – reading the photographic record p. 1 (no date) Available at: (Accessed: 1 January 2017).

FSA photographers document the great depression (no date) Available at: (Accessed: 1 January 2017).

James Curtis, “Making Sense of Documentary Photography,” History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web,, June 2003.

Journal (2010) Available at: (Accessed: 1 January 2017).

Kaplan, L.H., Peña, S., Kuhl, D., Hershberger, A. and Whitney, L. (2015) ‘ INTRODUCING AMERICA TO AMERICANS ’: FSA PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF RACIALIZED AND GENDERED CITIZENS. Available at:!etd.send_file?accession=bgsu1439562584&disposition=inline (Accessed: 1 January 2017).

Mason, J.E. (2014) ‘How photography lies, even when it’s telling the truth: FSA photography & the great depression’, January. Available at: (Accessed: 1 January 2017).

Photos of photographers in the great depression (2016) Available at: (Accessed: 1 January 2017).

Wells, L. (ed.) (1996) Photography: A critical introduction. London: Routledge.


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