Analytical Essay on Nationwide Photographic Survey of American’s Life During the Great Depression

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Table of contents

  1. Method
  2. Context-
  3. Conclusion

He eventually met his goal after the projects eight years lifetime. Over 250,000 images were captured, captioned, and sent to the RA headquarters located in Washington to be then distributed to various locations. The Farm Security Administration or the FSA was a program also part of the New Deal. In 1935 it followed the steps of the RA agency and also set out to combat rural poverty during the Great Depression by conducting a large nationwide photographic survey of American’s life during the Great Depression (McDermott). After the programs closure, the images were rediscovered by art critics and thrusted into the spotlight of discussion. This new discussion was surrounding the research question that this very extended essay set out to answer, “To what degree was the Resettlement/Farm Security Administration photography project during the Great Depression propagandistic?” Many historians agree that the project was close to showing the actual rural suffering occuring at the time of the Great Depression, whereas others disagree and say that RA/FSA photographs were not representative of the truth because they were edited and therefore propaganda.


In order to determine whether the RA/FSA were really aimed to be an honest attempt at improving conditions in rural America or if it was made to push propaganda forward I decided to begin with analyzing the word propaganda. “Propaganda” is defined as the “ideas or statements that may be false or exaggerated and that are used in order to gain support for a political leader, party, etc”(Propaganda Noun). With this in mind, propaganda can be viewed as a spectrum on being more or less exaggerated. On the far right suggests that propaganda is purely deceitful and mischievous whereas the left is more subtle. The left side portrays the cause or point of view in a very delicate matter. The first is known to be permitted to use in a society where as the second is more frequently seen in democracies. I examined the content of the two programs, the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration, produced from the years 1935-1942 to find out if they were indeed propagandistic. I thoroughly researched into if and/or how the photographers for the programs were instructed on what to capture and how they then took the images.

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Then I followed up with seeing how they were distributed and/or edited. It just needs to be biased, misleading, or promoting a type of view in any of these three categories to be considered to be partially propagandistic. With its position containing various levels of bias and deceit, it doesn't need to be purely propaganda to be called propaganda as well. It could just lie anywhere on the spectrum of differing extents. By using this theory as a baseline is going to be very important while moving into looking at the context surrounding the project. Combining this spectrum theory with political and visual context when analyzing, will allow it to be way more effective and efficient in order to spot the propaganda. Although while this is highly important, by examining just context won’t simply allow us to label the project propagandistic. However it will possibly allow for an accurate portrayal of the RA/FSA’s opening intentions for the photography project to be clearly seen.


Visual In the time period in which the Great Depression began, it was controversial on whether the photographers were just documenting what they saw or using this opportunity to advance their own profession (Jager 41). This fairly summed up what the main objective of this project was: to advocate for social change among the people. Jager recognized that the “combination of history and the photography highlighted the reproductive qualities of the historians’ work, not the creative aspects” (Jager 41). Many of the photographers at this time period wanted to showcase their talents, however this author believed that by documenting and reproducing the pieces it became distanced from the original cause of promoting the change. In the 1900s, the photography domain was focused around Pictorialism. This was the very dominant style movement at the time. Soft-focus lens and luscious papers were what photographers used to allow the photos to look as though they were etchings or a drawing (Blaustein). Many artists at the time used photography as a form to allow them to express art, rather than actually portraying what was occurring. However, with film and photographic technology advancing quickly in the early 20th century made it so the popular mode of photography changed to documentary from the pictorial fad. Although this new documentary photography was not brand new, it took on a new significance in the mid 1930s. It was used by people to record and analyze the reality of the present day events occuring at the time. The change was also because of how the product of photographers were questioning the purpose of how their art would be used in relation to what was occuring around them. The use of photography changed from documenting fiction to nonfiction with their artistic vision now becoming political and controversial. The photos have since been viewed as objective and subjective illustrative evidence at the same time. This posed as a positive thing as the camera according to the RA/FSA was seen as very powerful tool to communicate ideas across to the public. Another thing that was positive about this change was that now there was a large market for the documentary style of photography.

Susan Crane, a well-renowned historian stated, “In some quite ordinary and useful ways, we still assume that photographs are the most accessible, unmediated forms of representation.” Many wanted this style of documentary material during the Great Depression because of how it was honest and not played up. Americans at this point we're sick of the false promises and preferred that over false promises made. Political During the Great Depression, a large portion of the population was jobless and in poverty. From the perspective of the citizens, it was easy for them to blame the government for all their suffering. President Roosevelt and the government, attempted to relieve the pressure with his New Deal programs. Some of them ended up being successful, but none went without some sort of criticism. The Resettlement Administration was not an exception, in the article by, “people were reportedly angry and embarrassed when they realized their photographs had been published” (McDermott). The RA was constantly attacked because of its controversial projects that were lead by Rexford Guy Tugwell. In 1930s American farmers had to deal with the large economic downfall at this time. They had to put up with the Great Depression and dropping prices of their crops. They had to pay off a large debt they had been accumulating over this period of many years. Many if not all of the farmers had to find a solution to fix problems occurring with their land that included social erosion, droughts, floods, land becoming used too frequently, etc. This New Deal programs had been an attempt in assisting them with their problems. There was a large variety of specific programs made to directly address the various issues such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, Soil Erosion Service, etc. When the RA was created, it combined many programs that were already created and held similar ideas such as the Public Works Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Roosevelt’s direct executive order placed Tugwell, the present Undersecretary of Agriculture at the time, as the first leader of the Resettlement Administration. Tugwell was a very radical person whose views were reflected in his programs, resulting in many people not being a fan. They were considered controversial because of how they placed “ emphasis on cooperation and collective life as a way of improving conditions for America’s small, isolated farm families and tenant farmers” (The Living New Deal). When he was put in charge of the RA, he implemented a plan to build communal farms and labor camps full of migrant workers soon became infamously labelled as “Tugwell Towns.” These towns were known to be seen as very “un-American, but his access to the president assured passage and funding for the Greentown program” (Columbia). The media spread that his views were labelled socialist with hints of communism.

The non-stop complaints forced Tugwell to resign from his position in December 1936, thus resulting in the RA ending. With the New Deal program already dealing with these accusations, so it wasn’t very surprising to how people began to view the photography project as having possibly suspicious underlying intentions. Direct Evidence While taking this all into consideration when deciding whether or not the RA/FSA’s project was propagandistic or not, it is important to note that each of the photographers may have had different thoughts pertaining to this issue. Therefore the best thing we could do is to deeply analyze the most well-known and generalize the rest instead of analyzing each and every photographer there was. This I feel will allow for more of a solid conclusion instead of a very feeble one. When thinking about propaganda it is easy to dismiss it as always being done on purpose, however, sometimes it is done unknowingly. The manipulation of the photos and recorded evidence could've been done in some cases by the artist to just further enhance the message they wanted to get through which would strongly persuade and convince the middle class in the urban areas that there was a huge need for reform among the rural class. In a book review by James Curtis, he talked about how the novel focused on four key shooters, one of which was Dorothea Lange. Lange was a highly renowned and successful American documentary photographer best known for her Depression-era pieces. Her pieces were known to make people feel emotions through viewing her heart-wrenching photos. Within the Appendix, Figure 1. is her most well-known piece. “Migrant Mother,” depicts a close up shot of a middle aged woman with two children holding on to her with their faces both hidden. Her facial expression looks very dreary, with a hand close to her mouth which is slightly downturned. Their clothes do look as though they are in pretty good condition, however, may be slightly worn out with sleeves fraying on the motherly figure and possible holes in the child on the rights shirt. Their clothes look very plainly colored, however it is also in black and white scale so it is very hard to tell. The original print in the Library of Congress portrays it in its true, original form. Since its popularity, this is important to note because many artists have tried to edit it. This photo is one of the most iconic used photos from the Great Depression era. The photo itself is very striking, however, the story behind it has a lot of speculation on whether or not it truly represented what that family and others like them were going through. It is rumored that FSA photographers throughout the entirety of the project directed the subjects on what to pose like. This being a huge red flag, suggesting us to the conclusion of being propaganda. They have also been heard to have edited out parts of the images that they didn’t want to be seen in the final copy. In Lange’s photo “Migrant Mother,” there is a seemingly close portrayal of a mothers love and a very protective feel over her two children. This symbolism while being great while analyzing it as an art form and creating a legendary photo, but not so good when the point of the project was to document the experience of the people's lives in the more rural areas. The iconic photo was highly controlled and edited to fit what Lange envisioned her audience to see instead of showing the sad truths about what the people were going through which was most likely homelessness and starvation which were common in this time period. This was the case in other photos as well it seems with some other works being “entirely staged” (Street). Many artists claimed to only do this for aesthetic purposes or to cut out any possible distractions from the original message they wanted to depict. However, this brings into question the reliability of these sources as a whole. Whether some were just purely staged or not will forever be unknown to people in the present day.


By combining evidence seen in both visual and political context, it is proven that both did have to do with having an impact on the project one way or another. Originally stemming from the idea that the program would document America during this very trying time and convince the public that the Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration program were effectively working. This needed to be done in order to obtain funding for supporting those in rural areas in need of immediate assistance and to make up for “Tugwell Towns” by rebranding themselves. The photographers were instructed on what they needed to portray in their photos, what type of style they executed this in, and if they distributed the photos and/or edited them at all. This visual and political context that this essay examines and if the content were to lead to the conclusion that the RA/FSA had propagandistic intentions because of how it was biased in any of these categories, it would be placed automatically onto the spectrum of differing extents of propagandistic qualities. As mentioned prior, Roy Stryker who was hired by Tugwell to oversee the project had the most editing capabilities out of everyone during the RA/FSA’s photography project. He was in charge of where the files were stored and distributed out to. He also could make the decision to edit and select certain photos before they were sent out to publications. This leads to the conclusion that the content that was handed off to the publishers would be biased by him at the very least. With this in mind, before he even got the photos in his hand, different photographers were having the freedom of documenting life in America in anyway they wanted (within Stryker’s limits). They were given the ability to be able to follow their artist guts on what looked better, thus allowing their individual biases to slip through as well.

Things such as views on the project or program as a whole and different backgrounds in general may have swayed their intentions on what exactly they wanted to show in their photos. These factors are not able to be controlled, however it doesn’t dismiss the fact that both the photographer stage and the editing/distributing phase were both biased. Adding on to this, the direct evidence section provides us with solid evidence to confirm that it was very propagandistic. The RA/FSA photographers, especially Dorothea Lange, I found to be guilty of not truly documenting what was occurring in the moment. This adds towards the conclusion that the content was highly deceitful. While remembering there is different level of propaganda, I believe that this would not be complete propaganda, however, is very close. I think it would not identify as complete propaganda because of how when you think of propaganda you associate it with places that are communist. The RA/FSA photos I think would be somewhere in the upper half for sure. This then results in answering the research question being “To what degree was the Resettlement/Farm Security Administration photography project during the Great Depression propagandistic?” Because of how the photos for the project were deemed propagandistic, the program itself therefore is as well. When evaluating the sources for possible limitations, I found that many of the sources were already coming from the notion that the project was propagandistic. None of the sources I found did not defend against this accusation. I found this very surprising because I would not have guessed that so many other people have raised the question before this. Another limitation I found was that there was a severe lack of physical sources I could find on this topic. However, luckily I was fortunate to find many sources online in which were usable.

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Analytical Essay on Nationwide Photographic Survey of American’s Life During the Great Depression. (2022, July 14). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from
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