Analysing social documentary

Key questions to consider when reading social documentary images

  • What is the subject of the photograph?
  • What is the history and context of the image and its creator?
  • Why was the photograph taken?
  • How was the photograph taken?
  • Was the photographer being paid?
  • What was the intended audience?
  • How much is the photograph designed to appeal to the target audience?
  • Did the subject agree to being photographed?
  • Did they actively participate in the arrangement of the image?
  • What does the image reveal about the photographer?
  • Is the photograph successful?
  • How does the title of the image change the implied meaning of it?
  • What is the overall feel of the image?
  • Is the photograph social documentary or photojournalism?
  • Is the image part of a set and what can companion images reveal?

It is widely accepted that the Farm Security Administration photography project (1935-42) is highly significant in the history of photography for a number of reasons. Not only did it give rise to some of the most iconic American images – still familiar to most people today – and ensure the lasting fame of the photographers, but it is also cited as a landmark in social documentary.

This state-funded project was initially tasked with capturing images of workers to support the belief that poverty could be tackled by changes in land practices and a form of rural rehabilitation. The project was headed up Roy Stryker who hired photographers (including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott, Gordon Parks, John Vachon, and Carl Mydans) and provided them with lists of desirable subject matter (‘shooting scripts’) and a mission to illustrate the day-to-day existence of migrant workers. It is well known that the photographers actually sent back very different images from what was expected. Often the photographers’ aims were at odds to Stryker and Lange was eventually dismissed due to clashes.   It is also clear that, unlike in the case of Jacob Riis, these photographers were concerned with aesthetics as well as social concerns.

Writer Maren Stange is highly critical of Stryker (like Paul Kellogg of the Pittsburgh Society, who worked with Lewis Hine) explaining that his reformist prejudices often resulted in the images being manipulated and that the addition of misleading text “collaborated with corporate capitalism by providing a theory of benign social engineering that helped to mask the facts of class exploitation.” (1)

Our current reading of that body of work is also skewed as, after years of sifting, often only a handful of the images are recycled to represent an archive of 175,000 negatives. More on the most ‘popular’ images here.

In the early days, Stryker and his office staff were responsible for developing, editing, captioning and distributing the photographs. Over time, the photographers became more involved in this process.  “The function of documentary in the service of radical politics was affected not only by the beliefs of individual photographers, but also by the uses for which the pictures were commissioned; the professional practices thorough which they were produced, and the source of finance that made them possible.” (2)

Stryker talked about the project being “more about education than anything else… we introduced Americans to America.”   There is plenty of evidence that this was achieved from the public responses in the comment boxes at various exhibitions of some of the images, although it seems that little changed as a result for impoverished workers and migrants caught on camera. The real Migrant Mother, Florence Owens Thompson, said in interviews that she did not gain anything from the FSA’s work. In today’s terms, the legacy of the project is that it forms the definitive portrayal of the Great Depression, as well as shaping social documentary photography for future generations.

The familiar controversy, which surrounds all photography but particularly social documentary, as regards objectivity and truth is especially pertinent as the rise of government control over information was becoming stark in Germany and the Soviet Union in the 1930s. The images from this project could certainly be considered to be a form of propaganda but not in a totalitarian context.

Walker Evans wrote a personal note in 1935 saying:

“ mean never make photographic statements for the government or…anyone in gov, no matter how powerful – this is pure record not propaganda. The value and, if you like, even the propaganda value for the government lies in the record itself which in the long run will prove an intelligent and farsighted thing to have done. NO POLITICS whatever.”  (3)

This feeds into the debate around photography as a document and its ability to record with accuracy and truth. Social documentary usually can be assumed to depict reality in the sense that those people were real in those conditions, ie what you are seeing in the image really happened. But how far can we trust social documentary when the photographer has intervened in some way and does it still have legitimate authority if the captured scene is merely representative?

Photographers that eschew technical ‘fakery’ and manipulation in favour of ‘straight’ documentary may still have a social or political agenda, which could lead them to skew the objective reality somewhat. A good example of this is Arthur Rothstein’s image of the steer skull on the dried-up desert. I don’t doubt that he would have felt he was experimenting artistically to create a representation of an idea but how far that is acceptable in something that purports to be an honest record is debatable.

For me one of the most striking images from the FSA project is Rothstein’s famous dust bowl picture from 1936.

This has various titles but is called ‘Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma’ in the Library of Congress Archive so let’s go with that. We see a man and a boy struggling forward into a strong wind with a younger child tagging behind, holding his hand up to his face to protect him from the elements. Or he may be crying. Or both. It is hard to tell looking at reproductions of this image in books or on screen how much dust is visible but we make assumptions from the title of the image, the grainy texture and similarities in tone of the sky to the desert.

The horizon does not sit on a magical one or two thirds line but this somehow serves to accentuate how flimsy the structure of the house is – that it could be swept up into the sky and out of Kansas – or in this case, Oklahoma – at any moment.

Most of the emotional tug of this image centres around the smaller child and his gesture pulls us into the reality of the grim situation for these people. Not just today but everyday. The man even looks too tall to fit in the house, which doubles our sense of claustrophobia, desperation and compassion for these people.

One has to wonder if it would even have been possible to take a photograph in a dust storm in 1936 and I have seen it mentioned that this image was reconstructed.  More on this here.

This is also discussed in James Curtis’ Mind’s Eye, Mind’s Truth where the author argues that whilst the intervention and proactive arrangement of elements is generally considered to be off bounds for documentary photographers, in this case the images were designed to persuade rather than deceive. He says that as Stryker needed to gain the sympathy of the middle-classes to support his reformist programme, the photographs needed to appeal to the values of the target audience.

“Documentarians from Mathew Brady to Dorothea Lange succeeded because they understood the desires of their audience and did not shy from molding their images accordingly. Far from being passive observers of the contemporary scene, documentary photographers were active agents searching for the most effective way to communicate their views.” (Source: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/photos/photos.pdf)

Given the assumption that no image can be entirely objective as there is always some form of human intervention, I personally find this approach to be acceptable, especially when it is part of a larger body of work rather than a single image telling an entire story.

Rothstein was of course being paid but he seems, from interviews, to have had genuine compassion and concern for the plight of his subjects. This image does not seem reveal a particular trademark or style. Many of Rothstein’s pictures are of people looking at the camera as he tried to build rapport with his subjects before shooting. I would definitely argue it is ‘successful’ as this image transports us to the desert and a feeling of being battered by the elements in a terribly bleak landscape. These are people with dignity though – they have not given up.

Like the FSA team, Lewis Hine believed that good photography should be artistic and could support social reform. In his 1911 image A Blind Beggar in Italian Market District, we see not just the blind man and his barrel organ but also his environment and his fellow city-dwellers.

We don’t get a close-up of the subject’s face as Hine is more concerned with a sense of working conditions, albeit outside of a factory environment. The busker’s audience of a woman and two girls can stare with impunity while other people bustle around and one well-dressed man watches the camera. The blind man is already labelled by the sign he’s wearing but the title of image confirms that he is the subject.

Hine was a man of strong convictions and a commitment to always show the truth as he saw it. As with documentary photographers, this may also have included manipulation of his data to portray conditions in a way which would result in social reform. This was a time of rapid industrialisation, which lead to cities quickly becoming overcrowded and squalid. Hine will have wanted to capture these social conditions as much as possible to inform the wider public of the need for social reform to support those living at the margins of society.

I would say it is very unlikely that this image was consensual as Hine has just captured a fleeting glimpse of life on the street. His standing well back from the beggar has an air of respect about it. This does not feel like an intrusive investigation of the ‘Other’. It has a trademark style in the sense that it shows concern with working conditions. It is also very well-composed, with a good balance of the solid square organ and the round barrels. The watching mother is veiled in black, as the photographer must have been, and the suited staring man could almost represent the photographer and his middle-class audience. The multiple lines of vision and various viewpoints surround our blind man at the centre of the action.

This is a successful photograph – it brilliantly captures a number of revealing aspects of the environment and behaviours of the city’s inhabitants at that time. And, of course, it reminds us of the daily struggle of all kinds of different workers in this industrialised era. Like Riis, Hine wanted to make the invisible visible. Although Hine was working for the National Child Labor Committee at this time, I would assume this image was not part of a specific set that was commissioned or influenced by any factors (such as pay) outside Hine’s own agenda.

In Derrick Price’s Surveyors and Surveyed chapter of the course reader, photojournalism is distinguished from documentary by having “a special relationship to other texts and is seen, in its classic form, as a way of narrating current events or illustrating written news stories.” (4) Given this definition I would describe both the images I have analysed as documentary rather than photojournalism.

  1. Stange, M (1989). Symbols of Ideal Life: Social Documentary Photography in America, 1890-1950. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Wells, L (2009). Photography: A Critical Introduction (Fourth Edition). London: Routledge.
  3. Tagg, J (2009). The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truths and the Capture of Meaning. University of Minnesota Press.
  4. Wells, L (2009). Photography: A Critical Introduction (Fourth Edition). London: Routledge.
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