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.