It’s a haunting image – an anxious mother gazing into the distance while hungry children lean heavily against her back. First published in 1936, the picture was republished by newspapers and magazines across the country.
We’ve heard a great deal about economic uncertainty today. High unemployment rates, lower wages, and companies taking their endeavors to other countries, but the recent recession, deemed by some to be as bad as the Great Depression, has not resulted in families living in tents and bordering on starvation.
The photographer, Dorothea Lange, said the woman in the picture asked her no questions and was on the edge of starvation. Indeed, it looks as if the woman is completely absorbed in the direness of her own circumstances.
The photographer’s field notes say the family of nine (seven children, the subject, and her husband), had sold their tires to purchase food. Other reports, including a notation from the Library of Congress, claim that the destitute family sold their tent. In any case, they’d subsisted on vegetables from nearby farms and birds that the older children had captured.
Instead, the photo generated a donation of 20,000 pounds of food for the migrant workers at the pea farm where the photo had been taken, but did nothing at all for the woman or her family, who’d moved on in search of other migrant work.
Her identity was left unknown until about forty years later, when a reporter discovered her living in a trailer in California. Francis Owens Thompson was the woman in the photo, and still recognizable to the journalist. She felt bitter toward Lange, claiming that the photographer has assured her the photos would not be used commercially. She denied having sold either their tent or their tires.
Her daughter, Katherine McIntosh, has told interviewers that the family felt shamed by the photo. She describes the woman who carried her newborns with her while working the fields, laughed often, and had simple tastes that included chewing snuff and listening to country music.
Most of all, she said, the much-hated photograph instilled in the children a determination to avoid such poverty in their lives. For Katherine, that meant working as a housekeeper and remaining in her house. “People live from paycheck to paycheck. Even people making good money,” she said. Being cautious was one lesson she said she learned from her childhood, one that would do well for people today.
McIntosh is the child featured on the left. Son Tom Owens affirmed that the photo had been a curse upon the Thompson family, but later, when his mother battled cancer, he said he re-appraised the photo as letters and donations poured in to help pay for her medical expenses. At last, he felt proud of her tale.
Francis Owen Thompson died in 1983. She’d reared ten children.