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.

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8 Responses to “A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words, But That Is Not Always Enough”

  1. jcalberta May 21, 2014 at 15:27 #

    Thanks. Yeah there’s a huge story behind many images – that we usually don’t discover – aren’t able to – or don’t have time.

    Your comment about the kids struck me. My own family wasn’t always well off financially – and we went through some tough times – like many folks. BUT kids don’t know they are poor – i didn’t. I just thought ‘this is what life is like’ – and I always believed everybody else’s reality was the same as mine. Nobody bothered to pop my bubble and only later did that vision dissolve …

    • Rick May 21, 2014 at 15:35 #

      My grandparents said that they didn’t know there was a Great Depression. They didn’t have much before or during.

  2. Excellent, tantalizing post.It would be great to know the whole story.

    • Rick May 22, 2014 at 01:02 #

      Thank you. I’m still looking, but I’m not sure the story is to be found.

  3. Andrew Petcher May 22, 2014 at 04:28 #

    It is impossible to imagine being that poor. I remember my dad telling me about the Great Depression but of course I never understood it because I simply couldn’t grasp the immensity of it!

    • Rick May 23, 2014 at 20:11 #

      Some things can’t be understood without living through them. Around here, the Great Depression is taught as an American experience. I tell my classes that it was international.

  4. Lunar Euphoria May 25, 2014 at 15:00 #

    Fascinating post – and neat coincidence – I live in Tennessee on 70…

    • Rick May 25, 2014 at 15:13 #

      Thanks for reading and for commenting. As I said, I grew up on 70, and that’s what drew me to the picture.

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