The Fluctuating Truth of Documentary Images

It is not that I disagree with Dorothea Lange’s claim that photographs can be “fortified” by words; I also believe that the opposite is more frequently true. Photographs can be falsified by words — which is happening more frequently when their captions are in collective, digital, and anonymous hands.

I think of this while looking at Lange’s iconic image of the “Migrant Woman”(1936). I think about it again while I delete, with embarrassment, a photograph I had enthusiastically shared on my social media. The highlighted, and now deleted, photograph was supposedly of a working-class Turkish family, but not just any family, one that arrived as saviors of the pandemic. The image was made into a fast-accelerating meme with the following caption: “This is an immigrant family, newly arrived in Germany. The boy in the yellow shirt will go on to invent the COVID vaccine.” In late 2020, the natural impulse was to share this image because it perfectly combined an uplifting and politically charged story. And yet, it is exactly because of the enthusiastic caption that the image needed to be deleted.

The photograph was not, in fact, the supposed photograph of Ugur Sahin, one of the scientists who developed the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. The photograph was instead taken by German artist Candida Höfer, for her series Türken in Deutschland, 1979 (Turks in Germany, 1979). The newly attached caption put the circulation of this image into crisis — it creates a pronounced too-good-to-be-true quality. This qualifier brings me to the reason for deleting the image. Höfer’s photograph became “false” because of the forcibly attached caption, a seductive image illustrating the neo-liberal “rags to riches” trajectory of model migrants. This false narrative infers a rationale for accepting the immigrant, and foreigner, which I’ll refer to as the “unsettled” subject inside the image. “Unsettled” is a term I derive from Villem Flusser’s book, The Freedom of the Migrant. Through a conflation of the visual and the textual, this invented rationale renders the unsettled subject in Höfer’s photograph as he who came to us with nothing and proved himself worthy by becoming wealthy (not dependent on our charity) and producing social value (a vaccine).

Höfer started photographing the Turkish migrant community in Western Germany in the 1970s, a decade after its arrival to the country through the guest worker program (gastarbeiter). This program recruited foreign workers from poorer European countries for jobs in the German industrial sector which was suffering from labor shortages following World War II. Unsurprisingly, these communities were absent from the dominant cultural milieu. Their absence was not a haphazard circumstance but an intentional, institutional effort to erase the foreigners’ image-presence while maximizing their labor-presence.

Höfer was touched and interested by the readiness and openness with which Turkish families adopted to their new “home.”  “I became interested; I approached them; they did not mind being photographed,” she said in an interview published in the 2007 addition of Conversations with Photographers. Höfer recalled that her subjects invited her to their homes, restaurants, shops, and streets. Once inside these private spaces, photography became secondary to other forms of exchange. “They had questions to ask, stories to tell; they had forms that needed to be filled out,” said Höfer. These exchanges informed the ways Höfer showcased the series as well as the types of audiences she aimed to reach. In 1977 and 1980, Höfer published Diaserien, a series of slides accompanied with informative texts commissioned from sociologists, about her subjects’ history, culture, and current state in western Germany. In her 2016 essay about Höfer’s series, Amy A. DaPonte notes that the Diaserien, made available to schools and community centers,were aimed at educating the population suffering from “conspicuous shortage of information about the Turks.”

In contrast to the institutionally sanctioned shortage of visual information on Turks, from 1935–1944, the American Farm Security Administration (FSA) was proactively seeking to inform Americans about the impact of the Great Depression on poor farmers. Photographers and writers were hired to document the dire situation and, in doing so, generate support for the reforms of the New Deal. FSA’s photography project was headed by economist and photographer Roy Stryker. Stryker did not instruct the photographers on how to compose their shots, but he did instruct them to document their subjects’ daily life and rituals. Of Lange, the rare female photographer in that milieu, he asked to emphasize domestic work, praying, and socializing.

One could argue that Lange’s Migrant Mother has fragments of all Stryker’s directives. The photograph captures a woman framed by her two clinging children who are turned away from the camera. The woman is holding a third child in her arms. The expression on her face is worried. “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California,” read Lange’s caption to the photograph. This caption is very unlike her others. After taking a photograph, Lange was said to rush to jot down what her subjects said to her. As a result, most of her captions are stylistically distinguished combinations of vernacular and poetic language. Why was the Mother captioned differently?

Dorothea Lange, “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California” (1936); alternative title: “Migrant Mother” (courtesy the Library of Congress)

Having traveled for work alone for a month during 1936’s cold winter, Lange was tired and rushing back home. After initially driving away from a sign by the highway denoting a pea-pickers camp, she turned around, drove back, and entered the camp with her camera. Once inside, “as if drawn by a magnet,” she saw and approached “the hungry and desperate mother,” recalled Lange in “The Assignment I’ll Never Forget,” an article published in Popular Photography almost a quarter century after taking the photograph. Lange didn’t remember how she explained to the woman her presence or the camera she held, but she recalled that the woman asked no questions. Untypically of Lange, she did not ask the woman about “her name or her history.” Florence Owens Thompson remained nameless for four decades until 1978. The fact that Thompson was of Cherokee Native American heritage was revealed even later.

From available evidence, Lange appears to not have realized that she had cast a Native American for the “Euro-American role of New Deal Madonna” as Sally Stein argues in Migrant Mother, Migrant Gender. It is almost certain that Thompson’s identity would have hindered Lange’s project, as dictated by her supervisors. For example, Lange’s proposal to photograph African-American subjects was vetoed by her FSA supervisor, Stryker. He has also rejected a proposal by another photographer to document Native Americans. “The Indian [sic] pictures are fine, but I doubt we ought to get too involved,” wrote Stryker, adding, “There are so many other things to be done. You know I just don’t get too excited about the Indians. I know it is their country, and we took it away from them — to hell with it!”

According to Lange, Thompson told her that she “had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed,” and that she just sold her car to feed her family. The latter information, along with other details from Lange’s recollection, was later disputed by Thompson and her family members. “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,” said Thompson’s son, Troy Owens, in an interview.

In her article, Lange mentions making five exposures and progressively getting closer to her subjects. Her contact sheet reveals that she actually took seven photographs. Observed as a series, one could recognize elements of gradual directing, which lead to the final shot. The final, iconic shot conveyed the desired atmosphere and achieved the anticipated emotional reaction. Further proof of directing can be found in the darkroom manipulation. Under Lange’s orders, the woman’s thumb holding the log propping a tent, was removed. The original version of the photograph containing the thumb is available in the Library of Congress’s collection

Lange concludes her description of the encounter with the unsettling proposition that “there was a sort of equality” between her and Thompson, who “seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me.” Lange’s romanticized idea of power dynamics, suggesting that the process of making the photograph was an exchange rather than exploitation, is refuted by her subject’s eventual words. “I didn’t get anything out of it,” said Thompson in an interview decades later, adding, “I wished she hadn’t taken my picture.”  Thompson claims that Lange promised her that she wouldn’t sell the picture, and that she would send her a copy. The photograph was published, republished, and reproduced as a postage stamp. Thompson never received her promised copy. Her iconic likeness trapped Thompson into an exhausting paradigm. “I’m tired of symbolizing human poverty when my living conditions have improved,” she said in another interview, cited in Marie-Monique Robin’s book The Photos of the Century:100 Historic Moments.

The proliferation of documentary photography promised a more accurate representation of reality, by providing a facsimile of its surfaces and expanding it spatially and experientially. Despite enhanced cultural and political sensitivities, the unsettled subject remains an observable and deeply malleable construct. I am not sure what happened to the barefoot Turkish boy in Hofer’s photograph. The actual image was left untitled by her. One can therefore imagine and reimagine their circumstances at will.

The figure of the father towers over the other six members of his family. All but the boy are within reach of his arms extended in embrace. The boy is standing closer to his pregnant mother. His arms are down by his hips — the posture of a soldier standing at attention. His oldest sister is holding a toddler sister. His other sister is in the middle of the frame. Much like the mother, she does not look comfortable being photographed. One of her toes is peering from her green socks. That little toe helps the viewer to forget the expression on her face. The toe, together with the embrace of the father, the hand of the mother positioned on her growing belly, the smiling oldest and youngest daughters, and the unidentifiable objects on top of a vitrine in the background are familiar visual cues of family life. In absence of accompanying text, the viewer is left to their devices.

Höfer and Lange’s photographs, decades apart, are examples of the fluctuating relationship between truth claims and the textual companion to a photograph. They play an important role in forming the visual lexicon with which much of our political reality is signified. In Lange’s case, the textual vacated the specific and personal. The omission of important details about the subject, and exaggerating of her circumstances, turned Thompson into a symbol in essence no different from many other nameless faces of Depression-era photography. The boy in Höfer’s photograph was reclaimed through a meme into a short-lived, visual signifier of achievement, success, and hope. The false reclaiming was enabled by Hoffer’s decision to leave her photograph untitled. Between the omission and untitled is the unsettled, yet to be seen, heard, and named.  

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