The Real Story Behind The Tragic Image Of The Migrant Mother

The Real Story Behind The Tragic Image Of The Migrant Mother

By: Maria Suarez -

“A picture is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you the less you know.” 

Diane Arbus

Do you ever wonder about the people in the pictures you know? We pretend to know their story. We try to decipher their thoughts in that exact moment. We carry them on our phone covers and wallpaper. We add some text and post them on social media when we’re feeling a particular way. We feel like we know them. And yet, the truth is we’ll never really know how they felt or if they’d even agree to be passed around as trophies or souvenirs. The little plaque beneath their frame at the museum or gallery, or the blurb next to them on the website, gives us some facts, but they’re only glimpses into the entire story.

In 1936, photographer Dorothea Lange stopped at a pea-pickers camp in California on her way home to Berkeley. She had been travelling through different camps and farms, capturing images for a commission from the Farm Security Administration. These pictures were meant to show the rest of the country the plight of migrant farmworkers who’d been displaced and hurt by both the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl phenomenon.

One woman and her children caught the eye of Lange. She was simply sitting in her tent, nursing her baby, and her gaze held great strength and grit. The photographer asked the woman if she could take her picture, so that it would help the plight of other farmworkers. The weather had damaged the crops and the peas had frozen over, leaving the pickers out of work and looking for other ways to make a living.

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Lange took a few shots, then left. She sent the images to the Farm Security Administration, who took published photographs from other documentarians and were able to raise funds for the farmworkers. However, the woman in the image nor her family would ever receive the assistance. In her eagerness to finish the work and go home, the photographer asked a few questions here and there but did not actually sit down with her subjects and get the whole story. It was easier to simply take a couple snaps of this woman and her hungry children, and assume that her story was like that of thousands of others struggling. It was a completely classist move that I believe demonstrates the constant generalizations made by people who just see what they want to see and then leave.

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But before moving on, Lange sent another print of the image to the San Francisco News. This is ultimately where the story exploded and became an iconic picture of the economic crisis of the time. Beneath the picture was the caption, "Ragged, Hungry, Broke, Harvest Workers Live in Squalor." When someone tried to go back to the pea-pickers’ camp in Nipomo, California, they couldn’t find the woman or her children. So it was assumed that she had continued on to another camp or farm. It wouldn’t be until many years later that the truth would come out: the woman and her children were not part of the camp. Their car had broken down and they’d hauled it to the camp. The woman in question was working two or three jobs at a time to support her children, but she wasn’t a pea-picker. She and her children had been picking beets at another nearby farm. It had all been a misunderstanding. But nobody had cared enough, they’d preferred to believe the tale that had been created.

The photograph’s protagonist was Florence Owens Thompson and, while she had been displaced from her land, it hadn’t been on the same conditions that affected the Dust Bowl farmers. She was a Cherokee Indian from Oklahoma who had moved with her first husband to California in the twenties, but had become a widow just before the birth of her sixth child. In order to make ends meet for her family, she worked picking crops and waited tables at nearby restaurants. She had more children from relationships with other men but was constantly worried that, if she asked for government assistance of any kind, her children would be taken from her.

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One of the most popular stories about the day Lange took the image of Thompson is that the family had sold their tires for food. But her son, Troy Owens, would refute that claim later. “I don’t believe Dorothea Lange was lying, I just think she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn’t have."

It wouldn’t be until the seventies when the voice of the Migrant Mother would be heard, disapproving of the fame her image had brought: "I can’t get a penny out of it. [Lange] didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did." 

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In the early eighties, Thompson had a stroke that weakened her health. Her family could barely afford to pay for her care, so her son told her story to the world, in order to raise funds. The results were impressive, but by then Thompson would not be able to be aware of her impact in the population.

All in all, the family received over 2,000 letters and $35,000 USD. As Owens explained, “For Mama and us, the photo had always been a bit of curse. After all those letters came in, I think it gave us a sense of pride."

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Florence Owens Thompson died at the age of eighty, still maintaining a certain anonymity. Her life had been about keeping her loved ones together and safe. Unlike Lange, who would become an icon for capturing the American essence, Thompson struggled to keep food on the table. It makes you think, doesn’t it? How many stories are there like this? Where a journalist or photographer dips their toe into someone else’s life, never truly interested in seeing the real thing, but only in creating a narrative that the public will get behind. How many Migrant Mothers are there, really?