They are familiar strangers, the people in these photographs. Surely you have seen them before.
Migrant Mother, the ripped edge of her sleeve, the dirt under her fingernails, the creases in her forehead. Floyd Burroughs, the cotton sharecropper of Hale County, Ala., whose shadow of scruff traces the line of his jaw to the bulge of his Adam’s apple. The father leading his sons through a dust storm across a sky and ground that are almost the same shade of gray, the horizon nearly imperceptible, as if the edges of the Earth were smudged by an eraser.
These pictures are the product of a Farm Security Administration photography project. Under the guidance of Roy Stryker, head of FSA’s Historical Section, the agency sent a handful of then-unknown photographers to document our Great Depression. It was 1935. They were tasked with a simple assignment: Bear witness to America. Go. See. Tell afterward.
Widely disseminated through newspapers at the time, the photographs lodged themselves in the public consciousness and have remained there. The impulse to, as James Agee wrote in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” “perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is” has yet to fade.
It is perhaps most clearly alive today in Facing Change: Documenting America, a nonprofit collective of writers and photojournalists dedicated to covering the vast array of challenges facing Americans. Founded in 2009 by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers Lucian Perkins, formerly a photographer for the Washington Post, and Anthony Suau, formerly a contract photographer for Time magazine, FCDA aims to pay tribute to and continue the work started by the Depression-era photojournalists. FCDA has just announced a partnership with the Library of Congress to archive and publish these new photographs and narratives.
“We’re at a real crossroads in our country right now,” Perkins said. “This is a very important time in America.”
The scope of FCDA’s project is vast. It is reporting on everything from the devastation of small towns in the rural Midwest to the obesity crisis in Upstate New York, and from the fallout in Detroit ,where the auto industry once thrived, to housing foreclosures in Las Vegas where, every building once sparkled with possibility.
“I see [FCDA] as part of a continuum,” said Ralph Eubanks, director of publishing at the Library of Congress. “I want to show the connection between the past and the present.”
Eubanks speaks of those iconic FSA images with an almost religious reverence. “There was a power behind that camera that I don’t think people realized was there. . . . A photo can reveal much more than just the likeness of a person.”
The FSA photographs are housed at the Library of Congress.
Eubanks says he think FCDA can live up to FSA’s legacy. “What I’ve been taken by with the work of Facing Change is I do feel that there is a very raw intimacy in what they’re continuing to capture.”
Said Suau: “I think that if people could have a greater sense of what is going on in this country, there would be a much greater understanding and sympathetic view to making this country a better place.”
Danny Wilcox Frazier, one of FCDA’s photographers, said: “The goal is to bring awareness. Isn’t that what great documentary photography does, no matter where it is? It creates an awareness to circumstances outside of our own.”
A still image isn’t like a movie or a song, which, should you turn it on and leave the room, could play in your absence. Photographs require your participation. They demand that you look directly at them, even when — especially when — it would be far easier to look somewhere else. There are those who do not have the luxury of not seeing, of changing the channel from wrecked homes to “The Real Housewives.”
“It’s so easy for us to really turn a blind eye to what’s going on, because we can focus on only the images that we really want to see,” Eubanks. said
“I think we all think we know what America is,” Perkins said. “But there’s just so many facets of this country that we don’t know, even though we think we do.”
To see the FCDA photos, go to facingchange.org.