Shot Talk II – Migrant Mother

This shot goes by the epithet “Migrant Mother”. It’s an icon of the time and place in which it was shot, Nipomo, California 1936. This picture gave face, not just to the great depression of the 1930s, but also to the struggle of the farmers who battled the odds to make life work for their families, many of whom had to be relocated as the US and Canadian Prairies transformed into the infamous Dust Bowl of the “Dirty Thirties”. The mother in the picture, Florence Owens Thompson, 32, the sole provider to three young children, was at the time on the move to find odd jobs for money to feed her children. According to some of the back-story accounts she worked mainly as a farmhand picking whichever crops were in season at the time. Lange’s account of her encounter with Thompson went as follows:

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean- to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.” – Source: US Library of Congress Website

There is a lot more background, some controversial, to the shot than I have the space to reveal here. For those of you interested feel free to do some more reading here.

Although I’ve known this image for years I’m quite ashamed to admit that until the time of writing this post I never noticed the third child wrapped warmly in her arms.

If you’re new to the “Shot Talk” feature, please read Shot Talk 0.5 for some more background and guidelines for posting.

My Thoughts

A number of things always strike me whenever I see this photograph. The look on her face is immeasurable. In my present state I can’t even imagine having the responsibility of having three young children and not know how to keep them alive. If asked to guess her age without reading the caption, I’d estimate she was in her mid-forties. Florence was only 32 when this was shot. The look on her face betrays her thoughts, if indeed they can even be called “thoughts”. They are uncertainties and worries. This woman sold the tires off her car to feed her children. Even this sacrifice would only take them so far. “What would happen tomorrow?”.

The composition is tight. It’s close, and if there were no permissions given, it could even be called invasive. This adds more drama and impact to Florence’s plight. The look is certainly telling. This photograph certainly captured something which words alone could scarcely describe. Yet without the words that relate her situation to us, we’d be left guessing the source of her uncertainties. Once again we’re forced to acknowledge the impact that great photography can have. At the time that this image was shot, Dorothea Lange was working with the Farm Security Administration (FSA), which was set up to help combat the extreme poverty and losses farmers in these times faced from failing lands. This image came to represent hardship and uncertainty, it became the face of a time most apppropriately named “The Great Depression”.

There’s a lot more I can say about this image but of course I’d love to hear your thoughts as well. Please chime in using the comment box below.

Thanks guys.

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Author of Roaming Shooter.

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