Exercise: Making Sense of Documentary Photography


Read the article ‘Making Sense of Documentary Photography’ by James Curtis.

Curtis contextualises the work of the FSA photographers within a tradition of early twentieth-century social documentary photography and touches on the issue of the FSA photographers’ methods and intentions. What is your view on this? Is there any sense in which the FSA photographers exploited their subjects?


I recently wrote a research piece on the Farm Securities Administration for another OCA course, and this covers the overarching project and its objectives and principles.

In summary, what I found most interesting about the FSA project was the interplay of editorial and authorial intent – there was an evolving set of ‘messages’ expected by the FSA, complicated by photographers with their own strong feelings on the subject matter – which puts it in direct contrast to the nominally comparable but ultimately much more neutral Mass Observation project in the UK.

The question of whether the FSA photographs were exploitative can be examined across the two dimensions in the brief: the methods and the intentions. I have looked at these in reverse order.


For the purposes of attempting to answer the question broadly, applied to the FSA project as a whole, my view is: generally no, they were not intending to exploit their subjects. The best interests of the subjects was at the heart of the project, and the photographers (especially Lange and Evans) have a reputation of being committed to representing their subjects with dignity (this is not like the Avedon and Oestervang projects I recently researched, where the preconceptions and agendas of the photographers came first, and accusations of exploitation are more clear-cut).

So overall I believe that the ‘greater good’ argument wins out when judging the FSA photographs on charges of exploitation.

However, does this mean that no individuals felt legitimately exploited, or at the very least manipulated? The devil is in the details…


This is where the thrust of Curtis’s argument comes into play. The FSA photographers were, in many cases, guilty of a level of manipulation and stage management that many viewers of so-called documentary photography would find surprising.

Rather than thinking of exploitation in a general, vague sense it’s more useful to put oneself in the shoes of the subjects and consider what would constitute exploitation.

Two examples of exploitation of individuals would be:

  • Changing or falsifying a scene to depict people as suffering greater hardships than they really are
  • Promising something to the subjects in return for the photograph/s that is not delivered

To the first point, Curtis gives examples of FSA images (by Walker Evans and Russell Lee) where there are signs of the scenes having been carefully constructed – a family is seen to be motherless by excluding her from the shot; a table is cleared of possessions to emphasise sparseness; a healthy child is made to look sick; etc). The outtakes are a matter of public record, so piecing together the wider context of each shoot is easier than it might have been for other documentary photography projects.

While it’s unclear what the photographers told or asked the individual subjects, the drive for such stage management is assumed to be to match a pre-configured message. The individuals become actors in a scene that the photographer had pre-visualised, or at the very least wanted to present in a particular way. The ‘truth’ of each scene is subservient to the wider point that the FSA photographer wished to make.

To the second point, Florence Thompson was the subject of the most famous FSA image, Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936), and years later complained that she had not benefitted from the photograph in any way that she had been led to believe at the time (Wells 2009: 42).

Looking at Lange’s presumed thought process at the time rather than forecasting the image’s subsequent fame (which may distort feelings of exploitation), one can imagine that she did indeed persuade or even coerce Thompson into posing in the way that she did with implied promises of short-term assistance – even if Lange truthfully meant that the photos would benefit her subsection of society generally rather than bring financial relief to Thompson specifically.

So the ethical question turns on the point: is it acceptable to manipulate an individual and/or stage a scene to create a photograph (methods) to communicate a message that is for the greater good (intentions)?

This is where accusations of exploitation may legitimately rest – with manipulated individuals. But to side with the FSA for a moment: their project needed subjects; someone had to represent the hardships that the project was intending to not just highlight but resolve. The level of stage management is questionable, admittedly, but in the final analysis the photographers did it for the right reason – to get across the social reform message.


Making Sense of Documentary Photography http://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/makingsense (accessed 09/05/2016)

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.


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