The FSA photographers, however, captured more than misery; they also sought out glimmers of hope. They balanced victimization with relief, despair with perseverance. Their works suggest that, with an extra push from the federal government, these Americans could lead ordinary lives. Any of the pictures already described could be read as inspiring evidence of the persevering American spirit. In discussing the work of Lee, Stryker once said: "When one of his photographs would come in, I always felt that Russell was saying, 'Now here is a fellow who is having a hard time but with a little help he's going to be all right.' And that's what gave me courage" (Stryker 14). That's what Stryker, and all New Dealers, hoped would give the country courage. To show that normal everyday life could continue, the photographers sometimes concentrated on happy kids. Consider, for example, the striking contrast between Lee's "School Children at FSA farm workers' camp" and "Day laborers' sons who have never attended school." One shows little boys pouring over their books, spending their days as children should and investing in their futures. The other presents a different group of barefoot boys who sacrificed education for food. For them, present struggles outweigh future potential.
'30s Documentary
Innocence in Art
Romantic Portrayals
Family Photos
Knowing Images
Adult Projections
Happy Children
"School children"
Day laborers' sons"
"Day laborers' sons who have never attended school"
"School children at FSA farm workers' camp"
In Evans' "Children on East Sixty-first Street," three girls wear clean and tidy dresses, one even dons a bow, as they play with dolls beneath the front stoop. These girls, moreover, sit on pieces of newspapers to keep the sidewalk dirt off their clothing; they do not use the paper to insulate their homes. Because of the stark contrast between such scenes and, say, "Coal Miner's Children," the joyful children served to add urgency to the plight of other kids. The fact that some did experience a fairly Romantic childhoods highlighted the horror of the dust bowl youth. Moreover, for people like Caroline Bird--who claimed, "you could feel the Depression deepen but you could not look out of the window and see it. Men who lost their jobs dropped out of sight. They were quiet, and you had to know just when and where to find them"--FSA photos proved that poverty and comfort did, in fact, coexist (Levine 30).
"Children on East Sixty-first Street"
"Children on East Sixty-first Street"
Some photographs juxtaposed happy childhood and despairing childhood within the same frame. Lange's "Children of migratory carrot pullers," for example, conveys a mixed message about young emotions and responsibility, and it succeeds because viewers want all children to experience the same simple lives as Walker's New York City youth. By the caption, we know these to be children of workers--and possibly workers, themselves. Therefore, the moment of childhood exuberance that the girl on the left seems to be enjoying is tempered both by our awareness that such a feeling comes infrequently and the weary look of her friend, who leans her head against the first child's shoulder. However, the signs of hope amidst the desolation trigger a compassionate and sympathetic response from the audience.
"Children of migratory carrot pullers"
"Children of migratory carrot pullers"
In Evans' "Child in Back Yard," a deceptively simple photograph, Evans juxtaposes a real girl with a child's scribbled drawing of a person. Again, the shot satisfies at least one of Higonnet's requirements for a Romantic child for while the longish hair and tapered shirtsleeve suggest a little girl, Evans provides no overt indications of her sex. Moreover, this freckled-face youngster does not look particularly sad or despairing, especially next to the endearing drawing.
Girl in back yard"
"Girl in back yard"

At first viewers may not notice the scratched picture, for the child attracts our immediate attention. However, her left shoulder leans against the side of a fence or shed or some other wooden structure and the angle of her body draws the eye toward the pretend person. This funny picture offers a hint of the usual, carefree childhood as typified by the Romantic norm. However, the girl's torn and wrinkled clothing, along with the banged-up structure against which she leans, suggest anything but innocence. The drawing may exist in a make believe world of idyllic innocence, but the human child lives in the real world of 1932--before New Deal programs began to relieve suffering like hers.

Sometimes the contrast directly challenges middle-class adulthood and its comforts while others, namely children, needlessly suffer. Lange's "Three families, fourteen children on U.S. 99" impressively captures this tension, calling into question society's responsibility for the nation's youth by dividing the picture into two. According to Kress and van Leeuwen: "If, in a visual composition, some of the constituent elements are placed in the upper part, and other different elements in the lower part of the picture space or the page, then what has been placed on the top is presented as the Ideal, what has been placed at the bottom as the Real" (Kress 193).
"Three families, fourteen children on U.S. 99"
"Three families, fourteen children on U.S. 99"

The top of Lange's image shows an advertisement that reflects a level of affluence and a degree of comfort with which these fourteen children are unfamiliar. The billboard depicts a young man happily sleeping on a train. Below, their parents' have set up camp behind the sign. The children's position, which prohibits them from seeing the advertisement, increases the viewer's sense of their ignorance as to how others live. In this lower third of the photo, we see the families existing the only way they know how--without homes much less in luxurious traveling beds. Two small figures stand out from the crowd, a little girl holding a pet and a little boy. We can barely make out their features, but details are secondary here. These two homeless children, standing beneath a symbol of middle- and upper-class comfort, demand viewer's attention and ask, what are you doing to help?

Rothstein's "Artelia Bendolph" employs two frames--the one that surrounds the photograph and the one that outlines Artelia. The latter is a window opening in the log and dirt cabin. The African American child leans her hands on a makeshift sill and looks out, but not at the photographer. Instead she gazes past a newspaper image that lines the shutter. The tattered picture is of a nicely dressed white woman wrapping her food in cellophane to maintain its freshness. The juxtaposition between genteel white femininity and young black destitution upsets the idea of childhood innocence by distancing woman and child, not linking them intimately as did the Madonna and child images. It suggests a world in which adult wants precede childhood needs, where the Romantic child is consciously overlooked.

"Artelia Bendolph"
"Artelia Bendolph"
FSA images such as these deride the messages of competing propaganda such as those offered by the Saturday Evening Post. Throughout the '30s, the right-leaning publication ignored the reality of the Depression. Instead, it encouraged feelings of normalcy, pride, tradition, and prosperity. In short, the Post, especially through its cover art, embraced the ideal of white, middle-class America. On November 23, 1935, just months after the FSA first began its work, the magazine depicted a white-haired, bespectacled woman and a shirt-and-vest clad boy preparing a thanksgiving pie. While the plump old woman trims the excess dough from the crust, the child rests his face in his hand and stares. Neither looks needy in any way; nor do their relaxed poses indicate a crisis in American life. The Depression has not affected their holiday in the least, and the red-white-and blue color scheme suggests that their situation is indicative of that of all Americans.
Saturday Evening Post, November 1935
November 23, 1935
Saturday Evening Post, May 1936
Six months later, on May 23, 1936, the cover displayed boys and girls lined up, as if in an etiquette school, and bowing to one another. The girls wear colorful dresses with matching socks and shiny maryjanes; the boys don suit jackets, knickers, and ties. These young couples have never known fieldwork or homelessness. In fact, the front girl, who makes a face at her partner, embodies both the spirit of innocent childhood naughtiness and blissful ignorance of the plight of her peers. Finally, on August 27, 1938, a blond-haired, blue-eyed, fresh-faced, chubby-cheeked baby floating amid the clouds, graced the cover of the Post.
May 23, 1936
These images contrast with the scenes uncovered by FSA photographers by employing the same elements of Romanticism in more conventional ways. The Thanksgiving duo recalls Madonna and Child prints, for example, while the dancing children try on grown-up roles. The fair toddler, however, invokes a Romantic genre that eludes FSA works: child as angelic or cupid-like. Because the Saturday Evening Post covers relied on illustrations, they were not restricted by reality. These portrayals, in fact, made no pretenses of realism, and, therefore, offered only weak arguments for socioeconomic success.
Saturday Evening Post, August 1938
August 2, 1938