White folk.

Most of the images we have of the tragedy of the Depression portray strong, determined, dignified, hopeful Americans -- fighters, survivors, the salt of the earth. The photographs of Margaret Bourke-White are not so optimistic. Reinforced by the text of Eskine Caldwell, her images are often bleak, grim, despairing.

The white tenant farmer has not always been the lazy, slipshod, good-for-nothing person he is frequently described as being. His shiftlessness, when apparent, is an occupational disease of which he is generally well aware . . .

This same white tenant farmer grew from child to boy to man with many of the same ambitions and incentives that motivate the lives of all human beings. He had normal instincts. He had hope.

Somewhere in the span of life he became frustrated. He felt defeated. He felt the despair and dejection that comes with defeat. He was made aware of the limitation of life imposed upon those unfortunate enough to be made slaves of sharecropping. Out of his predicament grew desperation, out of desperation grew resentment. His bitterness was a taste his tongue would always know (Caldwell 19).

Unlike other documentary photographers, Bourke-White did not approach her subjects with the assumption that they were noble, and though her people were victims of circumstance, she did not celebrate their ways of coping with their plights. Instead, she pitied the cultural forms they took" (Peeler 104). Even images of smiling children have a pitying, patronizing undertone. These are children who only go to school part-time, who will never know better than to want to be just like their daddies. They are the sharecropper's children. They too would become "slaves of sharecropping.).

Bouke-White and Caldwell saw the South as feudalistic, as did other critics of the system of sharecropping. The revealing phrase 'my workers'may be heard in factory and downtown office building as well as at the end of the cotton rows ," wrote Arthur F. Raper and Ira De A. Reid in their 1941 work, Sharecroppers All (v).

Looking at matters like "low wages, insecurity, and lack of opportunity for self-direction and responsible participation in community affairs," they defined a sharecropper as one who "shares in the risk without sharing in the control," including many non-farm workers (Raper vi).

Lacking control, victims of fate and ignorance, the Southern sharecroppers in You Have Seen Their Faces are defeated, benighted, fatalistic. The white folks' sins can almost be excused, Caldwell and Bourke-White seem to say, because they had no choice. Young faces become old; the sweetness of watermelons turns to the bitterness of resentment.


 

White folk.

 

Black folk.

 

And their women.


You Have Seen Their Faces

FrontpageWhy photography?Margaret Bourke-White Further Reading