Over the years, FSA images have been burnt onto the collective American consciousness, and, decades removed from the Great Depression, we continue to struggle with the messages they convey. "American photographs are not simple depictions but constructions," claims Alan Trachtenberg. "The history they show is inseparable from the history they enact: a history of photographers employing their medium to make sense of their society" (xvi). However, the meanings they created were highly influenced by the needs of the FSA and the New Deal administration at large. At the same time, photographers struggled to carve a place for themselves in American culture. They used neither paintbrush nor sketchbook. Instead, they relied on a technical device to record the destruction caused, at least partially, by a machine-driven industrial economy. While employed by the FSA, Evans claimed, he "was doing non-artistic and non-commercial work" (Evans, Qtd in Trachtenberg 237). In fact, he and his colleagues invented the new form of social documentary, eloquently blending artistry and propaganda to create what is arguably one of the most valuable records of American life.

One of the principle powers of photography--and, really, any pictorial form--is its uncanny ability to raise important questions and inability to offer unequivocal answers. The FSA pictures stir the consciousness because they raise issues that strike at the heart and mind. When these issues involve the destruction of childhood innocence and, in effect, the endangering of the future, they become more difficult to ignore. Toward the end of the Depression, Wolcott shot "Children going home from school, Breathitt County, Kentucky," which blends hope for a better future with a strong reminder of the not-so-distant past. The children are privileged enough to go to school, and some even carry a lunch. Not one of them, however, wears shoes or properly fitting clothes as they trek down the muddy road. The children fill the traditional role of students, but their body language adds ambiguity to the scene. They walk away from the camera, turning their backs on Wolcott. Viewers see only a small portion of their walk: we know neither the distance that they already have traveled nor the length of road they must yet cover. According to Kress and van Leeuwen, "perspective can indicate sequence, with the foreground as the present and the background as the future" (275). These children cannot change what came before, but they can walk boldly toward the unknown future. They seem to do so with both an acceptance of what they already have endured and determination to overcome future obstacles.

'30s Documentary
Innocence in Art
Romantic Portrayals
Family Photos
Knowing Images
Adult Projections
Happy Children
"Children going home from school"
"Children going home from school, in Breathitt County, Kentucky"