Throughout human history mothers have held a special place. Their importance in the very fabric of our society has been chronicled in art and literature and has been studied by sociologists and other social scientists. In interviews it is commonplace for famous artists, politicians, sports figures, and other notable individuals to cite the influence of their mothers in shaping and moulding their lives.
Of all of the photos and images that capture the essence of motherhood, few have achieved the iconic stature of Dorothea Lang’s 1936 photo Migrant Mother.
The photo stunningly captures the essence of motherhood and the role mothers play in the lives of their children. In today’s world the photo’s imagery is perhaps more important than at any time in history.
In 1936, America was in the midst of the Great Depression. The dire economic conditions along with a massive drought, known as the Dust Bowl, resulted in large numbers of Americans living in poverty and many fighting starvation, homelessness, and other hardships.
The conditions led to a large number of Americans becoming migrants, traveling from one part of the country to another in the hope of finding jobs and any means to support their families. The lucky ones among these migrants often lived in their cars, while others lived in tents and makeshift shelters.
In was in this setting that Lange captured her iconic image.
The Story of the Migrant Mother
Dorothea Lang was a photographer who worked for the Farm Security Administration. Her job was to document the impact of federal programs designed to improve rural conditions.
Lange was returning home from a month long assignment when she passed a sign outside Nipomo, California that read “Pea Pickers Camp.” Lange at first kept driving but decided to turn pack to visit the camp, which consisted of several thousand migrant workers.
A winter freeze had basically destroyed the crop and there was little or no work for the migrants. As Lange approached the camp she saw “seven hungry children and their mother”. She said that she “approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet.” Lange took six photos and decided that those told the story of those in the camp.
She obtained only a small bit of information about the subject of the photo but did tell the mother that the photo would not be published.
However, when she returned home she sent two of the photos to a San Francisco newspaper. The editor published one of the photos as well as contacted federal authorities. As a result of the photo and article the federal government sent 20,000 pounds of food aid to the camp. The photo also played an influential role in John Steinbeck’s writing of The Grapes of Wrath.
The Migrant Mother
The subject of the photo and her children were not at the camp when the food aid arrived. They had stopped at the camp due to car problems. Her husband and some of her children had left in search the parts needed to repair the vehicle. With the repairs completed, the family had continued their journey.
The identity of the Migrant Mother was unknown for over 40 years.
During that time the photographs, according to historians and social scholars, had “achieved near mythical status, symbolizing, if not defining, an entire era in United States history.” The iconic image was called the “ultimate” photo of the Depression Era and part of a collection that offered “the most remarkable human documents ever rendered in pictures.”
In 1987 a reporter for the Modesto Bee acting on a tip found the subject of the photo, Florence Owens Thompson, living in a caravan.
Thompson had achieved a bit of financial security over the years. In an article with the Modesto newspaper Thompson said “I wish she [Lange] hadn’t taken my picture. I can’t get a penny out of it. She didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.”
During the Depression Thompson worked as a migrant farm worker and said “I worked in hospitals. I tended bar. I cooked. I worked in the fields. I done a little bit of everything to make a living for my kids.”
In interviews after Thompson’s death in 1983, her children recalled their mother and the impact of the photo. One daughter noted that “We never had a lot, but she always made sure we had something. She didn’t eat sometimes, but she made sure us children ate. That’s one thing she did do.”
Another daughter noted that “Mother was a woman who loved to enjoy life, who loved her children. She loved music and she loved to dance. When I look at that photo of mother, it saddens me. That’s not how I like to remember her.”
After Thompson’s death the photo was used on a US postage stamp, and the original photos were sold at auction for over six figures.
Although the Migrant Mother photo is over 80 years old, the imagery is amazingly contemporary. The plight of migrants as they attempt to escape economic hardships, starvation, war, and religious persecution are well documented and often dire.
One of the stark differences between Thompson’s time and modern times is the reaction of some politicians to the plight of migrants.
Donald Trump’s administration has floated the idea of separating migrant mothers and their children. Some “populist” European politicians feel that basic rejection of migrants is the best way of dealing with the current crisis. Other politicians are quick to blame migrants for many government problems.
There are a number of organisations and NGOs that take the view that caring for migrants and migrant mothers is not only a humanitarian cause but also one that is crucial in defining our society and in shaping our future.
The UK’s Open University has played a long-standing role in being advocates for migrant mothers. Other organisations can be found on various levels throughout the UK and the EU.
The TransferGo Blog is pleased to honour all mothers this Mother’s Day and to thank them for their guidance and, at times, their sacrifices that benefit us as a society.