A Picture Worth a Thousand Words: The Migrant Mother

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What makes a photo iconic? I think a photo that  speaks to the masses, one that moves people or makes them rethink their own morals and values. Dorothea Lange's infamous The Migrant Mother photo taken in 1936 during the height of The Great Depression is one of those such photos.

It's haunting. Her children hiding their faces. The look of worry and dread on the mother's face. Who is this woman?

Let's take a look at the photo The Migrant Mother here:

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I found out that the mother's name was Florence Owens Thompson. She was married at the age of 17 and by the time her husband (Cleo Owens) died of tuberculous she already had six children and another was on the way. She gave birth to three more children with a man named Jim Hill. By the time this photo was taken in 1936 she may have had all ten of her children already.

She would work every odd job a woman could. She cooked, picked cotton, cleaned, worked in hospitals and in bars. After reading a bit more about this mother, I could tell that she was one tough cookie and that she would never let her children go hungry. She worked and dedicated her life to making sure they were always taken care of. But they were poor. Very poor. And that is when the photo was taken. When they set up a temporary camp and Lange took six photos of Florence. The last one is the one you see above.

Florence felt angry about the fame Lange received from the photo and that she wasn't able to get paid for being a part of it but what she didn't know was that Lange didn't get paid for taking them. There was no money made by either party. Forty years after the photo was taken the identity of the mother was made public and Florence was said to have been both embarrassed and horrified by the notoriety.

Keep in mind that there is a great deal of shame that is put on us if we are poor or struggle financially. Imagine someone, a mother, trying to make ends meat during one of the toughest times in American history and the world remembers her for being that poor woman on the road.

If you would like to read more about Florence and her life after this photo you can read some more HERE.

What do you think when you look at this mother and her children? Do you think powerful images like this can change how people think of others or themselves?

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  1. This is such an iconic photo! I remember seeing it for the first time as a kid in a book I read, and even then I felt the depth of the photo. We get caught up in the pretty dresses of the 30s, but for many, if not most Americans, this was the reality.

  2. This is really sad that the mother and photography got zero compensation for such an iconic photograph. I wonder what happened with the children. It really is a piece of photography history.

  3. BTW, I love this series you are doing. I hope it becomes a staple.


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