Seeing Dignity In Poverty

Dorothea Lange’s politics of respect.

Asked in 1964 about the most significant thing she had learned about Americans while photographing those fleeing the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, Dorothea Lange answered: “I many times encountered courage, real courage. Undeniable courage.” She saw it often, she said, “in unexpected places.” She attempted to capture it as well, of course, in her stark black-and-white images of somber migrant farm workers, strong-jawed mothers, fly-dotted toddlers, and gaunt sharecroppers. By showing the stoicism of her subjects, Lange restored dignity to the dispossessed during the Great Depression.

As Linda Gordon points out in her excellent new biography, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, the photographs Lange took of the “handsome homeless” symbolized the way the architects of the New Deal analyzed the Depression, so that widespread poverty was no longer blamed on poor people but on financial mismanagement: “The economy, not the people, needed moral reform.” Lange’s subjects were poor, but also disciplined, hardworking, and upright. And quite beautiful.

These images, taken as Lange explored rural California and the Midwest in her dusty Ford station wagon on behalf of the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration, serve as a striking reminder of how subversive it can be simply to view people with respect. Lange chose attractive subjects, Gordon writes, “but she also found the attractiveness in everyone,” through courtesy, not flattery. And, when her subjects were uneducated, exhausted, hungry farm workers, “her respect for them became a political statement.”

After The San Francisco News published photographs of starving pea pickers, existing on stolen frozen vegetables because a cold spell had destroyed their crop (the iconic “Migrant Mother” was one of them), there was a deluge of public donations. Shortly afterward, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration provided funding for two emergency migrant-worker camps in California. No wonder FDR’s critics slammed these photos as sentimental propaganda.

The contrast to today is stark. Last year the number of Americans living in poverty peaked at 13.2 percent, the highest in 11 years. The greatest drop in income has been among lower- and middle-income earners. But poor people appear in the mainstream media only when they are obese, sick, or sad: powerless and to be pitied. Stories center on their lack of jobs, homes, and health insurance, or how some now live in motels or storage units.

Throughout the recession, we have remained largely obsessed with rich people; whether lauding or castigating them, our gaze has been primarily focused on the excesses and excuses of Wall Street. The well-off have not just received most of our attention, but also most of our aid, which means that those responsible for the crisis have been the least affected. Charities have also suffered. A Pew survey found that over the past two years attitudes have hardened toward the poor. In 2007, asked if the government should do more to help the needy, 54 percent said yes. This dropped to 48 percent in March this year.

A year ago there was much talk of how this recession might cause us to redefine—or remember—what it means to be American, recast our values, and to “put aside childish things,” as President Obama said. But there is little evidence this has happened. The voices calling for a more civic-minded, prudent, and decent culture have grown quiet as our eyes strain looking for green shoots and fat cats.

Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” but the president has yet to succeed at creating a broader narrative about America and the need for reform. He promised to protect the weak, and this remains his challenge. Lange’s wage was paid by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal—she prodded the public in return, and evoked their sympathy by humanizing the poor. Both politician and photographer attempted to build a public culture based on respect, not shame. By doing this, they reminded America what being American meant.

This is why it is so sobering, in the worst downturn since the Depression, to think of the woman who limped through rural America 70 years ago with a leg gnarled by childhood polio, her hair stuck under a spotted scarf, and snapped the impoverished and displaced until she found their beauty. Her greatest lesson, perhaps, was about dignity. A portrait, she said in 1965, is a “lesson in how one human being should approach one another.”

Courage, real courage. You hope to see it sometimes, in unexpected places.