People Surveys – Making Sense of Documentary Photography – James Curtis

Documentary photography has…come under harsh scrutiny from post-modern critics, who question its tendency to separate and exploit certain groups of people, serving up the poor as exotic fare or voyeuristic consumers. (Cited in Wells,1997. Rogers, 1994. p.5)

For the next exercise we are instructed to read the article ‘Making Sense of Documentary Photography’ by James Curtis and are given the information that:

Curtis contextualises the work of the FSA photographers within a tradition of early twentieth-century social documentary photography and touches on the issue of the FSA photographers’ methods and intentions. What is your view on this? Is there any sense in which the FSA photographers exploited their subjects?


On nosing about I came across this really well researched blog post from fellow student Rob, and I hope he doesn’t mind me linking it here , as it touches on several points raised in this article and the previous research point.

The article itself touches on other photographers and circumstances, but on the whole deals with the FSA and, in particular, a few of the more famous photographers and photographs.

The introduction reminds us that we have to know how to fully analyse a picture in order to ‘gain any understanding of it at all.’ In order to do this it is useful to understand the context in which it was created and eventually used, effectively the methods of procuring the images and the intentions of use. Part of our issue with analyzing historical images in the ‘now,’ is having to overcome the initial concept that we ‘often treat the image as the product of a machine and therefore an objective artifact.’ (Curtis, 2003) That in allowing ‘publishers not authors’ to make the final selection we may not be being served up the whole truth of a situation, and the author of the image has lost control of the message they wanted to make, or how they wanted to make it.

Curtis breaks his essay into sections, the first being in relation to early documentary photography, where photographers readily embrace their label of ‘fact gatherers’ without ‘aesthetic or political agendas,’ but goes on to explain how they did have both, with Alexander Gardner and William Henry Jackson using methods of manipulation to achieve their photographic visions.

We then get modern documentary photography and a brief introduction to Riis and Hine, whose ‘photographic fieldwork’ probably paved the way for the FSA.  Rothstein recalled:

It was our job to document the problems of the Depression so that we could justify the New Deal legislation…

Stryker, who supervised the collection of photographic evidence, stated:

This goal had a specific audience in mind: middle-class Americans who lived in cities far from the locales depicted in the photographs and who comprised the vast majority of the readers of the newspapers and magazines in which the FSA pictures were reproduced.

So straight away the vocabulary used indicates the intention and the intended audience, does this automatically mean that images were going to be biased or manipulated, the subjects exploited? A means to an end?

In looking at who took the photograph you need to establish if they are ‘an historic actor bent upon communicating a message…conscious acts of persuasion.’ Curtis cites Brady and Lange as photographers who knew their audiences and delivered the required images to fit their desires. He also returns to the work of Riis, advising us that many of the images were staged, with some of the participants being paid ‘with cigarettes’.

Walker Evans moved furniture around in the Burroughs home to achieve an aesthetically pleasing image of a simple homestead.

Why, and for whom was the photograph taken? Hine worked for social reform agencies, therefore he had a very obvious agenda, which obviously had a direct bearing upon his work, he tried to portray the ‘deserving poor’ without condescension and with dignity – hopefully the same could be said of the FSA.

Curtis then shatters all illusions surrounding the Rothstein/Gees Bend image. He gives this image as a prime example of the ‘biases and racist assumptions’ of aid agencies:

  • Rothstein was asked to photograph the plantation as if it had not been receiving assistance for the past 2 years.
  • The family was made to appear to be a throwback to African Tribal society
  • The captions used implied that the photograph was of a single family group – one father – rather than a multi-generational group where the other males were still working or simply excluded from the group.
  • The captions also referred to the families as ‘descendants of slaves’ or the house ‘occupied by Negroes’.
  • White families were not portrayed with many children – in fact Lange deliberately only photographed her ‘Migrant Mother’ with 3 of her 7 children lest she lose sympathy for lack of family planning.

What I did find interesting was that whilst researching this image I came across it on the Met Museum website where it is now entitled ‘African-American Family at Gee’s Bend, Alabama’ and the blurb underneath tells us:

As one of the first three photographers hired by Roy Stryker at the Farm Security Administration, Rothstein became intimately familiar with the plight of rural families during the Depression. In this photograph, he deftly communicates the individual personalities of each family member despite the formality of the group pose. The image was reproduced in Richard Wright’s photo-text book, 12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States (1941), in which the acclaimed author of Native Son and Black Boy combined New Deal photographs with his words to trace African-American history from slavery, through emancipation, sharecropping, and northern migration, to contemporary joblessness and racial prejudice.

Same image, different interpretations…

We then have to consider how the photograph was taken, not only the equipment used but the positioning and staging etc. here Curtis tells us that, despite all his protestations, Walker Evans must have asked his subjects to pose, due to shooting with a ‘bulky 8X10 view camera’ that required long exposure times. Many of his candid shots had to have been posed, and when comparing companion photographs of the same day this becomes even more apparent. Looking at the ‘outtakes’ allows for wider context and it is very useful that we can see all the archived images online now to get a fuller picture. As Curtis writes ‘this visual evidence offers a much more reliable guide to the photographer’s original intent’. This intent can be further emphasised or altered, depending on the narrative style chosen to present it, and the titles/captions finally assigned. Emotive language could fuse ‘the power of the raw image with the persuasiveness of the written word.’

Curtis ends with the power of the written word to underscore his point about racial attitudes. He chooses examples of work from Russell Lee taken of Mexican households in San Antonio and the Rio Grande valley. Four innocuous images are then pulled apart for their framing and captions:

  • No mother is seen within the images – was she deliberately left out to make it look like a struggling single father household?
  • the caption of a home made of ‘scrap lumber’ suggests the makeshift construction of the house and undermines the fathers ability to provide for his family
  • The girl drinking near a bucket in the kitchen suggests insanitary conditions and a contaminated water supply
  • The kitchen has a dirt floor and other captions draw attention to this health hazard
  • A child in bed is labelled ‘Mexican boy sick in bed’
  • Corner of the bedroom offers no insight as to the contents of the image – namely a home altar
  • the home alters mentioned elsewhere were described ad ‘primitive’

Curtis suggests that rather than trying to suggest these families also were in dire need Lee was making a statement that if ‘white Texans did not receive federal assistance that they would end up in a primitive condition akin to their Mexican neighbors.’

Having read all of that do I consider the FSA photographers exploited their subjects in any way? Does the ‘greater good’ argument win?.

To summarise, the FSA photographers were, to a certain extent, guilty of some manipulation and stage management. However, they did not falsify scenes – although they did imply meaning from omission or caption, nor did they promise anything in return for their subject’s time or photographs. Was this subtle manipulation ethical? I think it depends on the individual photograph and the underlying message. Leaving out a few children does not make the ‘Migrant Mother’ less tired or desperate, however the portrayal and captions of the Gees Bend and Mexican families make me feel less comfortable with saying it was acceptable.


James Curtis, “Making Sense of Documentary Photography,” History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web,, June 2003. (accessed 1 January 2017)

Wells, L. (ed.) (1997) Photography: A critical introduction. London: Routledge.

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.