A Record of Human Erosion: Looking at the Farm Security Administration’s photography legacy

Words by Michael Salu

How far can one travel in a single pair of shoes? What lands might one cover and what kind of terrain? Soft grasses and pebbly gravel that cut divots into one’s soles?

What altitudes will one’s lungs breathe, and how will these different airs erode the protective materials around one’s feet? And what of rain? How much downpour and residual water might these single pair of shoes retain before they begin to fray? How many sunrises and sunsets might one witness in them? How much would those sunrises and sunsets change as one walks and time-shifts encroach on ones access to daylight and the possibility of finding sustenance, or a place to shelter before dark closes in.

The sixteenth-century saw Europeans leave their homes to travel lands and waters unknown to them in search of new opportunities and resources to improve their economic conditions. These journeys were termed ‘discoveries’, but as our species has done since we’ve had the two legs to do so, they in fact migrated.

Previous: Son of the owner of the ranch resting after the roundup. Cattle ranch near Marfa, Texas. Lee Russel, 1939. This image: Itinerant worker. Fort Worth, Texas. Dorothea Lange, 1936.
This year there are floods and heavy rain in the Dust Bowl. Auton, Texas. Dorothea Lange, 1937.
Migratory boy in squatter camp. Has come to Yakima Valley for the third year to pick hops.
Mother: “You’d be surprised what that boy can pick.” Washington, Yakima Valley. Dorothea Lange, 1939.

Since that famed migration and the subsequent erasure of the indigenous population these migrants encountered upon arrival that had already existed in this ‘New World’ for millennia; ensuing migrations, the movement of bodies from Africa as product and labour to work these new lands, battles and renewed battles amongst the various migrants from Britain, France and Spain, workers from China, Japan and other nations, eventually determined the landmass and its borders we now know to be The United States of America. A relatively young country and since its formation many generations of migratory movements, from Irish to Italian, to Polish have contributed to shaping what it is today. The disarray of World War II dispersed people across the globe in many directions. Some were able to cling more closely to their origins, others had to search for a new place to call home. At each new place these displaced peoples arrived, they were asked to declare anew who they were, to resettle and reimagine themselves and what they were now to be and to represent, in exchange for a new and hopefully sustained life.

What then does it mean to migrate within one’s own borders, be those borders of nationality, province, or bureaucratic jurisdictions? Do we view this kind of economic migration as we do those of the past? Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee’s seminal work of documentary photography between 1935 and 1939 for the Resettlement Administration, which later became the Farm Security Administration, put such considerations into stark light as they followed the Great Depression in America, which saw a significant portion of the population unemployed and destitute. Lange’s sensitivity to humanity as a collective regardless of her country’s violent inner, enabled her during these years to engage with a wide range of citizens both white and African Americans across the country coping with this destitution, often aimless in their wandering as they looked for ways to end their suffering. One could take a wild psychoanalytical guess and wonder if Lange’s own experience with polio as a young girl, which left her a touch crippled, could have been part of the driving force behind her interest in the human condition and in particular its frailty, its vulnerability but also its resilience.

Hoe culture. Alabama tenant farmer near Anniston. Dorothea Lange, 1936.
Hen’s nest in tree. Agricultural day laborer’s house in McIntosh County, Oklahoma. Lee Russell, 1939.
Kern County, California. Undernourished cotton picker’s child listening to speeches of organizer at strike meeting
to raise wages from seventy-five cents to ninety cents a hundred pounds. Strike unsuccessful. Dorothea Lange, 1938.
Once a Missouri farmer, now a migratory farm laborer on the Pacific Coast. California. Dorothea Lange, 1936.

“I have worked all my life and all I have now is my broken body.”

Imperial Valley, California. Old Mexican labourer. Dorothea Lange, 1935.

Picture humans cast adrift by a failing sense of purpose, devoid of the anchor of employment or industry, without the facility to ensure a meal on the table. A full belly, opening up the room to smile, the luxury of leisure time, the excitement of love. The resilience of the human spirit witnessed in these pictures connotes that some of these things will survive within us regardless; how we so instantly respond to hardship, how we immediately try to adapt to survive. Where our legs take us even without an assured destination, how we deploy our senses to instinctively seek out the new. The family units, the clustering of small communities supporting each other, a wall of resilience against the elements. The closer one is to the land, the better one feels its rhythms and the more instinctive one’s adaption.

The Great Depression saw a global economic downturn that impacted millions, and today amid a worldwide pandemic, we face the prospect of something similar. How will our more atomised and individual culture adapt to this moment? Maybe it will be an entirely new experience, as this potential downturn comes with the added urgency of how to adapt to a changing climate. It is not possible to look at any of these potential catastrophes as distinct from another, and when one traces a path through the economic history of the world, through slavery, colonialism and hyper-industrialisation, it is clear to see how the dominoes are laid.

A Middle-East fractured by western economic powers for the purpose of unfettered access to finite and environmentally destructive natural resources, leads to middle eastern families turning up – and in some tragic cases – floating up as corpses, to the beaches of the British south coast. Young men from Sierra Leone or the Congo, turn up in Sicily and roam the streets in search of opportunity, due to the long-established colonial extraction of natural resources from their home nations, including those resources used to build the devices we peer at every day. This leads to multi-generational corrupt governments, installed and paid by traditional colonial powers to sustain this exploitative economic structure, ensuring the nations with these valuable resources do not experience real infrastructural growth and autonomy. The damage done to the natural world is intricately connected to the economy and the inequality that sustains this economy. We cannot discuss the climate without discussing racial capitalism.

As unemployment rises in the US and across the world, the racial fissures underlying our economic architectures will come into effect, as we have already seen during the early days of the pandemic. Similar scenarios were also observed during the depression. Then, the menial labour and low-end jobs that were typically the preserve of brown and black citizens at the lowest rung of the economic ladder in America were encroached upon by white Americans in poverty. This appropriation was aided in part by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal”; reforms and regulations designed to boost the economy of The United States of America and aim the country towards some sort of greatness. 

Alfred Atkinson and two of the eldest sons, near Shannon City, Ringgold County, Iowa. Lee Russell, 1936.
Indian rainbow corn in farmhouse near Northome, Minnesota. Lee Russell, 1937.
Bulletin board in the office of the Kaweah Delta co-operative gin. Tulare County, California. Dorothea Lange, 1938.
Child of white migrant worker sitting on bumper of their car from Arizona, near Harlingen, Texas. Lee Russell, 1939.
Douglas, Georgia. Wife of sharecropper in town to sell their crop at the tobacco auction. Dorothea Lange, 1938.
FSA (Farm Security Administration) client making out farm and home plan. Mason, Texas. Lee Russell, 1939.
Tulare County, California. Farm Security Administration (FSA) camp for migratory agricultural
workers at Farmersville. Chairman of the camp council referred to in 19660. Dorothea Lange, 1939.
This farm was abandoned in 1937. Near Dalhart, Texas, Coldwater District. Dorothea Lange, 1938.
Lineup for food at mealtime in the camp for flood refugees, Forrest City, Arkansas. Walker Evans, 1937.

Essay written by Michael Salu. All images taken from The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library.

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