Tag Archives: Shaft

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words, But That Is Not Always Enough

21 May

My brother sent an email that he thought I would find interesting. It contains a slide show of old photographs that have been colorized. As the series of photos appear on the screen, melancholy music plays in the background. I must admit that it is a cool thing to look at.

Each photograph has a caption that explains the images. Some of them are of famous people and famous events. Others are of regular people doing regular things. However, one of them stood out from the rest. The caption read, “A mother and her children living on US Route 70 near the Tennessee River 1936.”Poor Woman

This photo struck me for several reasons. Obviously, the imagery is striking as it portrays absolute poverty. The mother had made a skirt from a flour sack, and the children are wearing rags. They are all barefooted and dirty. We can only imagine how hungry they are. Despite these circumstances, the child on the right looks to be having fun. He is pulling on his sister’s foot and smiling at her. She could be laughing or squealing. The scene tells a complicated story.

However, the image was not the only thing that struck me. The picture was made in my state of Tennessee, and that brought the images closer to home. I remember stories of the Great Depression from my grandparents. They said that the Depression was bad, but they were poor before it began.

All of that brought this image close to home, but there is something else. The caption says that they were “living on US Route 70.” That is the road I grew up on. Granted, it is a federal highway that goes from coast to coast, but I always considered it my street. Somewhere inside, I feel that this picture was taken in my neighborhood. It was a different time and vastly different economic circumstances, but it is still my neighborhood.

With all of that going on, I had to do some quick online research, and some interesting information popped up.

This photograph was taken by Carl Mydans as part of the Farm Security Administration, one of the many New Deal programs. It was designed to help the rural poor find better land and learn better farming techniques. To chronicle the plight of these people, photographers and writers were sent out to record their stories. I have no idea how successful the program was in agricultural education, but it provided us with some iconic images of the time period.

(Sidenote: Gordon Parks was a photographer in this program. He went on to greater fame as the director of Shaft.)

As I dug deeper, more information came to light. The family lived near Camden, and their shack was built on the chassis of a Ford truck. There were nine people in the family, and the 17-year-old son said that he had only attend school for two years. Also, there are other photographs that include the father, other kids and the man interviewing them.

That is good information, but there is more that needs to be known. What were their names? How did they find themselves in this situation? Was it the result of the Great Depression, or did the poverty go back for generations? What happened to them? Did the children grow up and improve their condition? Did they survive? Did they know that their pictures would become part of our national heritage?

Like many stories from the past, this one has missing pieces that may never be found. We know a great deal about those in power, but we still have a long way to go with the masses that make history complete.