I was in Newcastle one evening recently looking for some street photography ideas. A man called Kevin, who lived on the streets, saw my camera and invited me to take photographs of him and his friends. He showed me where he slept and he and his friends told me a little about their life on the streets.
Kevin has been sleeping on the streets for 20 years and sees little chance of getting accommodation. His bed is a collection of old blankets and cardboards under a foul-smelling archway. I couldn't believe it when he told me he was only 50.
Kevin's friend was sitting in a doorway when I met him. He was happy to be photographed but seemed resigned to his fate.
I looked at these images afterwards and thought how Kevin and his friend's eyes told the story of their hard lives. But this type of photography needs to be treated with care. I only learned recently about the subsequent history of Dorothea Lange's famous image of Florence Owens Thompson,Migrant Mother, and the lessons it offers to photographers.
Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother
In March 1936, , Florence Thompson and her family were traveling to find work when their car broke down. As she waited, Lange working for the Resettlement Administration, drove up and started taking photos of Florence and her family. Over 10 minutes she took 6 images. Lange's field notes of the images read: "Seven hungry children. Father is native Californian. Destitute in pea pickers’ camp … because of failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tires to buy food.", and she later wrote of the meeting: "I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food."
However, Florence, who only came to light as the subject of the image in 1978, claimed that Lange never asked her any questions and got many of the details incorrect. She claimed that Lange promised the photos would never be published, but the San Franscisco News ran the pictures almost immediately, with an assertion that 2,500 to 3,500 migrant workers were starving in California.
Migrant Mother had an immediate impact and achieved near mythical status symbolizing an entire era in American history. As a whole, the photographs taken for the Resettlement Administration are some of the most remarkable human documents ever rendered in pictures.
Later, Lange was criticized for taking inaccurate notes. Worse, Florence was quoted as saying: "I wish [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." Thompson's daughter Katherine (to the left of the frame) said in a December 2008 interview that the wide distribution of the image made the family feel shame at their poverty.
Lange was funded by the federal government when she took the picture, so the image was in the public domain and Lange never directly received any royalties. However, the picture did ultimately make her reputation.