Explorations in Storytelling

On Writing

Writing about writing

The Photograph

I remember the first time I saw this photograph. I was in the library in high school. My assignment was to do some research about the time and conditions surrounding The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Even then, I loved Steinbeck's writing, the power of his subjects, his characters, his descriptions. And I was deeply moved by Grapes of Wrath.

'Migrant Mother' - Florence Owens Thompson, 1936; photograph by Dorothea Lange

'Migrant Mother' - Florence Owens Thompson, 1936; photograph by Dorothea Lange

The school librarian led me to a book of photos taken during the Great Depression, and as I thumbed through it, there she was, full page, starting out at me: Ma Joad. Or so she seemed.  I did more digging and read some of Steinbeck's news articles on the migrant farm workers -- one in Life magazine -- and learned that from that journalism, Steinbeck had crafted his novel. His fiction had more power than reality. I was captured. I decided I simply must become a journalist. So I did.

It is years later -- too many years if you ask me -- and this photo still captivates me. Over the years, I have learned a lot more about it.  The photo almost wasn't taken. Dorothea Lange was on the road in 1936 headed home after several days of shooting pictures. She drove past this woman and her children and saw them beside the road in a sad looking tent. For 10 miles she thrashed with herself about not stopping. Finally she turned around, returned to the woman, snapped six frames and headed back home. It was unusual for her; normally she'd stop and connect with her subjects. She'd at least get the woman's name. She didn't.

Decades later, a reporter found out the woman was Florence Owens Thompson, a longtime employee of a local hospital. Turns out Florence hated the photo. So did Lange -- Lange because she felt it wasn't hers, that it had become a symbol out of her control; Thompson because she felt it made her and her family look bad and glorified poverty.

I also have learned that John Steinbeck saw this photo. It was what spurred him to take action, to look into the issue of migrant labor, to write the news and magazine articles and, finally, to write a novel that still opens peoples' eyes about migrant labor.

I've used this photo many times in writing groups. I've encouraged teachers to use it with their students. A powerful, compelling photo always yields great responses. Even from ex-drug addicts. On Wednesday nights, I used to lead writing sessions with people recovering from opiate addiction. One night I had them write to this picture. None had seen it before. All of them described the woman as a drug addict, further proof of how we let our own experiences frame others' stories.

That night, I also played them the recording below, of Florence, in her late 70s, talking about that time in her life back in 1936.  "Wow," said one of the ex-addicts. "And I thought I had it rough."

So take a listen. It will change how you view the photograph. And it will show you the power of sound, of real voices, in digital writing.

For more ideas surrounding this photo (and a transcript of the recording and more background), click here.