The Migrant Mother

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. 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. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it. –Dorothea Lange (From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).


The other day our car was broken down (again, again) and we walked to the free art museum which happened to be 1.3 miles away. No matter the snow, or the biting wind–we had bags full of snacks and a blanket to wrap around the toddler. As we walked through the streets, past now familiar sights–the corner where all the deals go down, the popular cigarette shop, the statue made of melted-down guns kitty-corner against the park where people still get shot–we eventually found a tree-lined park, and the majestic columns of the art museum. We wandered in, unsure of how we had found this haven of calm, order, and beauty.

Between chasing our daughter (under the stern eyes of the guards) and wandering the many rooms of ancient art, we finally made our way to my favorites: the photography section. There, I was struck by a high-quality print of a photo I have seen time and time again: Dorothea Lange’s iconic Migrant Mother, shot in 1936 in Nipomo, California. The look in the mother’s eyes, the way her children shun the camera–hair tangled, eyes never meeting our gaze–made me stop in my tracks and look long and hard.

I was gratified to read the above quote by Lange, which accompanied the photograph. The stories behind the photos are increasingly becoming more important to me. When she says there was “a sort of equality about it”, I want to believe her. I do believe her. I think Lange knew what she was doing, that she herself had been changed by the landscape, the shifting nature of migrant work, the way it bound and enslaved families in a desperate struggle for survival.

I went home and did some research. I found another article, talking about the photo from a different angle–that of one of the children in the picture, the girl huddled to her mother’s left. She talks of how ashamed they were of their situation, how they didn’t want anyone to know it was them in the picture. She talks about how ultimately, the photo did and did not come to define her mother (who died in 1982 and whose gravesite reads Migrant Mother: A Legend of the strength of American motherhood.). When asked to describe her childhood, the girl in the picture sees a fuller perspective: “50% good times and 50% hard times.”

That last bit struck me. When I see the photograph, all I see are the hard times: the people starving in the work camps, the way the depression settled like dust in the lines of your face, the strain such nomadic and unstable lives put on the children especially. What I don’t see are the other times–the music they loved (yodeling, it turns out), their fierce bonds, the normal imaginative play of childhood. But now I do, and it makes the picture even more impactful, makes it less of an exotic mystery (something I read about in a Steinbeck novel, for instance) and brings it directly into focus with the lives of the people I live next to every day. Lives full of hardships, lives full of joy. Moments of desperation buoyed by gratefulness, sickness tempered by celebrations, always the hope that the next crop will come in, that next year will be better.

This is just me; I have no thoughts on what exactly Ms. Lange would have me feel about the photos she took that day–but I do know that they changed her. They also changed the lives of the family in the picture, and deeply connected with the rest of the country. And the world has not changed all that much; Les Miserables are still all around us, dreaming for a better future, working and fighting and dying for it. And so, pictures like Migrant Mother continue to speak to us, and hopefully draw us along to something more inspired than pity, stir in us a curiosity for relationship and a longing for the kingdom to be fulfilled.

I’d be curious to know of other pictures/art that have moved you in such a way that you needed to know the back story behind them. For more information on the thought behind this series, go here.

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13 thoughts on “The Migrant Mother

  1. The first time art ever moved me was when I saw Guernica in my high school art class. I went to learn more about the story behind the painting a few years later, and it has hit me that art really can save lives if a painting like that can capture the horrors of war.

    • Melissa G says:

      Yeah!!! Guernica is the best! I love the hidden sources of light in that — the lightbulb on the ceiling, the candle in the hand right next to it, the flower in the hand on the ground in the middle, the window open in the back right. Picasso really GOT it, you know?

    • i also love the backstory to the afghan girl one (they caught up with her years later). the napalm one is just devastating–i wish i could unsee it, but know that i shouldn’t feel this way. and this makes me think: i wonder what the picture of the 2000-2010 decade was?

  2. cate clother says:

    so did you ever watch the dust bowl documentary on PBS? watch it. i mean it.

  3. You move me, girl. Thanks for this beautiful post.

  4. Not related to this post directly, but to the topic…I’m listening to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn while running these days and it seems, though of course fictional, so relevant and well-handled. She writes about the poverty and lack of education and struggles and pain but the characters are rich and complex and developed. Its been great for thinking on these things.

  5. amber@mercyrising says:

    Thanks for the beautiful pictures and words. These pictures move us because though the time and circumstance differ, we can identify with pain, struggle, and the human spirit. Thanks for mentioning the joyous times also.

  6. annlpowell says:

    Very thought-provoking. The pictures that will always be in my mind is the one of the beautiful young Indian girl on the Time magazine, both the before and after. I am praying for you all right now. 🙂 Love, Ann

  7. khargaden says:

    I don’t want to link it, because to be honest, I don’t want to be troubled by being faced by it again, but the picture of the last decade that lingers most powerfully for me is the hooded figure on the box from Abu Ghraib.

    The first piece of art that took my breath away in the fashion you describe here?

    I’m sort of embarrassed to admit it because it is such a strange painting. It is the “Opening of the Sixth Seal” by Francis Danby. It hangs in an easily neglected corner of the National Gallery in Dublin and I first noticed it in the middle of my journey from atheism to Christianity. What impacted me so powerfully is hard to see in the prints but the only people who welcome the terror of the apocalypse revealed are slaves. They stand on the ledge with their arms in the air, their chains on the ground.

    What struck me was that the Good News of Christianity wasn’t a therapeutic crutch to help me live my life. It was the purported revelation of God’s character as one who has a preferential option for the poor and the downtrodden. That revelation may be real or not, but it definitely wasn’t simple.

    I can’t say this strange picture converted me, but it certainly opened my eyes to the fact that I had never really taken the claims of Jesus seriously.


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