Did the photographers who worked for the WPA exploit the subjects they were trying to help?

Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange were both photographers who were sent out during the Great Depression to document the poverty of that migrant farm workers and other lower income disenfranchised Americans were suffering from would seem that there photographs were a social document that recorded as well as created a sympathetic point of view of these people's demise.  However, Stefanie Däne in her Source Based Project: “FSA Photography: Dorothea Lange &Walker Evans” from 2010 has suggested that these people

... they were actually exploited by the government as a form of propaganda. ... In order to the promote the advantages of family farming, the photographers were ... codes or present other taboo subjects such as child labour.30 Whereas there are ... by the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA),

I wonder if they were.  What do you think?

Right now at the Cantor Center for the Arts there is a wonderful show of Walker Evans Photographs.

Walker Evans

Walker Evans Photographs from Private Collection on View at Cantor Arts Center

February 1 – April 8, 2012

Stanford, Calif. – American photographer Walker Evans (1903–1975), with his direct and unsentimental images of life on small-town streets, in New York subways, and on sharecroppers’ porches, inspired generations of photographers and helped shape contemporary art. The Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University presents a broad survey of Evans’ 50-year career, drawn entirely from the collection of Elizabeth and Robert J. Fisher, MBA ’80. The exhibition, entitled “Walker Evans,” opens Feb. 1 and continues through April 8, 2012.

This exhibition encompasses not only Evans’ brilliant documentation of the Great Depression and his work with James Agee on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the landmark study of three tenant farm families in Alabama published in 1941, but also his little-known experimental photographs from 1928 to 1930; the subway series (1938–41) later published in the monograph Many Are Called; photo-essays for Fortune magazine (1945–65); and rare Polaroid SX-70 prints from his final years. The exhibition includes more than 125 vintage prints as well as an extensive selection of Evans’ original books and magazines. The progenitor of the documentary tradition in American photography, Evans had the extraordinary ability to see the present as if it were already the past, and to translate that knowledge and historically inflected vision into an enduring art.

Presentation of “Walker Evans” is made possible by the Center’s Clumeck Fund and Cantor Arts Center Members.

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VISITOR INFORMATION: Cantor Arts Center is open Wednesday – Sunday, 11 am - 5 pm, Thursday until 8 pm. Admission is free. The Center is located on the Stanford campus, off Palm Drive at Museum Way. Parking is free after 4 pm weekdays and all day on weekends. Information: 650-723-4177,
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View related programs.

Walker Evans,
Alabama Tenant Farmer, 1936. Gelatin silver print. Lent by Elizabeth and Robert J. Fisher, MBA ’80. © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Walker Evans, Main Street, Saratoga Springs,
New York, 1931. Gelatin silver print. Lent by Elizabeth and Robert J. Fisher, MBA ’80.
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Walker Evans, Broadway, 1930. Gelatin silver print.
Lent by Elizabeth and Robert J. Fisher, MBA ’80.
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art


  1. Exploitation vs. Selective Censorship

    Is it exploitation to speak the truth through photographic or artistic expression?
    Is it selective censorship to limit the shocking reality of life’s downturns now that we possess the means to display them publicly?

    I believe it is in humanity's best interest to see any and all social historicity, regardless of whether the observer perceives these events as good or bad.

    My family came out of the Dust Bowl/Great Depression era of Oklahoma. My two aunts wore dresses to school made from flour sacks. Finally, my grandparents sold everything and departed Oklahoma in 1940 in the Ford Model-T and a meager handful of cash. They sharecropped in eastern Oregon for two years then made the final move to the San Francisco Bay Area of California.

    I have a photo next to my desk here of my father, uncle, 2 aunts and their three friends, posing as young children do on the farm in Oklahoma. It helps me to ‘feel’ the reality of life that sometimes becomes lost in the shadows of 21st century modernity.

    Exploitation enters the stage when people purposely and excessively prosper at the expense of another human being. Censorship diminishes the human factor of life when events like those of the suffering during the Great Depression are purposely hidden from the public’s view.

    Government propaganda? Remember the saying, “History repeats itself” and take a long look at the photographs if you get the opportunity to visit the Cantor Center for the Arts to see the Walker Evans Photographs.

  2. Thanks Royce! It has become a little bit of a debate because we are planning on doing a similar show at Ohlone and some students feel it may be exploitative.

  3. I think this very well applies to the show happening at Ohlone.

    In regards to your post, I would agree with Dane. If my memory doesn't fail me this photographs were taken during FDR's first term at the white house. Dane states that the government used the photos as propaganda which could be applied directly to the passing of legislature such as the New Deal. I can't prove this to be a fact but is one of the ideas that came to mind when Dane mentioned the agenda behind this project.

    I think the show at Ohlone is something very similar. While it seems to be an action of good deed, I think it is far from that. Now, let me state that this is going to sound pessimistic and that in fact, I do not agree with the show taking place.

    The professor behind the show 'The Changing Face of Homelessness' argues that this action provides SCU students and viewers, with an insight to a community of homeless people that are just like you and me. First, making a show about them, drives that whole message down. If in fact we are all the same but harsh circumstances happened to them, does that make us lucky? Better than them? This is condescending. They are not helpless individuals.

    During her visit to the gallery class, the professor stated that most of SCU students come from a privileged background, even saying that most of the students there "drive better cars than a lot of the faculty." Ok so students are sent to a homeless shelter have them "volunteer", gain the trust of the people there and take pictures which will later be published. This is taking advantage of the misery of others. They are being used as an assignment along with the students. From the perspective of a homeless person from a shelter, how are they going to negate to a picture after the students helped them? They can't.

    I am very skeptical about the motivations of this project. Why are they doing it? How is this "awareness" going to positively affect the homeless? Are the students only doing it for a grade? Again if the purpose of the show is to illustrate how we are not very different from the homeless, this is showing the opposite. This project is showing just how different they are; look at the photographs, they look like normal people right? Oh yeah did I mention they're homeless? How is the viewer supposed to react but by feeling sorry for them.

    The professor in charge of the project states that "Students haven taken great care to ensure that individuals are shown in a positive light as a continuing process of breaking down stereotypes perpetuated by our society." I'm sorry what stereotypes? Those that show a picture of a dirty person on the streets collecting cans? Again the project defeats its very purpose. This is making those people more miserable by having us, the viewers, feel sorry for them.

    It is of no doubt that homelessness is a very controversial issue. It is hard to approach it, but that does not mean that this is the right way to do it.

    -Gilberto G.

  4. Hi Gilbert. Please slow down a bit. I think you haven't looked closely enough at the photos in the catalog.

    None of the photos actually show anyone who is "homeless" as looking as if they are "homeless."

    The photographs contains no visual clues that these people are anything but ordinary people. All of the portraits portray them as clean and well dressed. They are not portrayed as someone who we would feel sorry for.


  5. I've embedded the book in the post above.

  6. BTW. In my opinion and some others I think that the accusation against Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange might be overblown. Here's what Dewitt Cheng a noted art critique wrote on Facebook:

    DeWitt Cheng: "I think we should be grateful to to the WPA as an example of a federal program that meant well and was beneficial. Read about conservative opposition that ended it eventually, resulting in THROWING AWAY of much of the art, a heart-breaking loss, in Bram Dijkstra's book, "American Expressionism.""

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  8. If that is exploitation, we sure could use some of it now. Is journalism exploitation? Real journalism seems to be slipping away from us as well. We could also use more real journalism and less press releases rewritten as news.
    Jim Linderman Dull Tool Dim Bulb the Blog

  9. these photos are old friends

    met them last at 'HUDSON RIVER MUSEUM of ART at WESTCHESTER' [3 miles north of NYC in Yonkers] IN LATE '90S