The innocence of the Romantic child and the "blank slate" concept also allowed adults to project their ideal selves--their fantasies, hopes, feelings of nostalgia, and longings for protection--onto the images of children. In an introduction to a 1980 photo exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art called American Children, Susan Kismaric interprets Depression-era children as "witnesses to tragedy." She explains: "[Photographers] saw children as eloquent embodiments of the plight of migrant workers, displaced families, and drought victims. The Depression vividly showed us, a nation with a brief history, the inequities of our imperfect system, and pictures of children powerless against their pain reflected their parents' conditions as well as magnified it" (8). It is not merely the helplessness of innocent children that appeals to adult sensibilities but also the significance of this condition to adult lives. Higonnet describes youth as an "edenic state from which adults fall, never to return," writing: "The image of the Romantic child replaces what we have lost, or what we fear to lose. Every sweetly sunny, innocently cute Romantic child image stows away a dark side: a threat of loss, of change, and, ultimately, of death. Romantic images of childhood gain power not only from their charms, but also from their menace" (28-29). Inherent in innocence is its inverse, the physical, sexual, and psychological awareness that accompanies adulthood.

Romantic pictures, even mother-and-child imagery, maintained a certain distance between the adult viewer and the child subject. The highly sentimentalized scenes of sheltered domesticity directly contrasted with the corruption and reality of the public sphere. FSA family portrait-style photographs, on the contrary, broke down the public-private barrier by juxtaposing men and women, adults and children within the same frame. Under their impoverished conditions, the domestic and financial responsibilities blended together with children as likely to contribute to the family as their parents. No longer ignorant of adult consciousness and desires, these children defied existing notions of innocent childhood. FSA images that highlight this alternative state sent a strong message to adult sensibilities about the turmoil of the country.

'30s Documentary
Innocence in Art
Romantic Portrayals
Family Photos
Knowing Images
Adult Projections
Happy Children
"Damaged Child"
"Damaged child"

Photographs of psychologically mature children fit a category Higonnet calls "knowing" images. Such pictures, she explains, "for the first time in the history of art, endow children with psychological and physical individuality at the same time as they recognized them as being distinctly child-like" (12). A knowing child may display ferocity and toughness, as in Lange's "Damaged Child, " one of six FSA images in American Children. The photographer manipulates viewer sensibilities by capturing the tension between the Romantic child and its modern counterpart. The focal point of the camera, the child, whose name and age are unknown, is clearly the subject of Lange's study. Clothes hang loosely on an asexual body and cropped hair offers no hint regarding the child's gender. Higonnet declares the child a girl and claims that, with this image, Lange denounces "poverty by exposing the suffering of a child's body" (116). In other words, the stained, ragged clothes offset any notions of Romanticism.

Her dark eyes, staring fixedly at the camera, could indicate a determination to overcome her situation, a hope in the future, or, alternatively, a skeptical look at the adult facing her. The photo satisfies the requirements of a "demand" image: "the participant's gaze (and gesture, if present) demands something from the viewer, demands that the viewer enter into some kind if imaginary relation with him or her. Exactly what kind of relation is then signified by other means…. They may stare at the viewer with cold disdain, in which case the viewer is asked to relate to them, perhaps, as an inferior related to a superior…" (Kress 122-123). As a knowing chid who confuses adult notions about how children should look, this child is superior over her audience. Moreover, she understands a Depression-era lifestyle most of her viewers would never know. Indeed, Lange offers the girl as a sacrifice of the Depression, an innocent, albeit conscious, victim of poverty and want. The child stands in front of intersecting creases of a dark background that suggest a cross, and Lange's frontal perspective emphasizes an allusion to Christ.

"Coal miner's children"
"Coal miners' children in bedroom of their home"
In "Coal miners' children in bedroom of their home" by Wolcott, two dirty--perhaps from the coal dust--but otherwise healthy and seemingly well-fed children sit on a bed piled with unkempt coverings and clothing. On the left, a lacy curtain frames the shot, but what appears to be either newspapers or sides of cereal boxes adorn the wall. With these details, Wolcott successfully captures the tension between prosperity and poverty, as well as the friction between the Romantic child and the modern reality. With so much going on, viewers might overlook the objects on which the photographer centers her picture. The bed with its two inhabitants juts from the left side of the picture, so that the older child appears to be the central figure. Above her head, however, evenly centered in the frame, hang the bodies of two dolls, each dressed in white. We see neither their heads nor the device by which they are fastened to the walls, and, therefore, the toys appear as two hanged figures, strongly suggesting the demise of little-girl innocence.

Wolcott's photo of two African American children also images a knowing child. Captioned "Negro children and old home on badly eroded land near Wadesboro, North Carolina" and taken at an angle that looks up from ground level, the shot captures the dry, desolate landscape, the two young Depression victims, and their tired house. The eroded land stretches as far as the front porch, as if the tenant had used every inch of available land to plant crops. Halfway up the worn path that leads from where Wolcott positioned herself to the house, stand two African American children. The only living things in this shot, the children convey a certain degree of hope, though the younger child, who suffers from rickets,will carry a lasting scar from the Depression. Again, these children know pain, but, walking away from their home--as if trying to distance themselves from the desolate land on which it sits--they suggest a determination to regain the childhood that they lost or, rather, that was taken from them. They refuse to be merely ruined children on ruined land.

"Negro children and old home"
"Negro children and old home on badly eroded land near Wadesboro, North Carolina"
The existence of knowing children shattered adult ideals of innocence, rendering obsolete their feelings of nostalgia. The destruction of a past in which adults sought comfort, severely inhibited their optimism for the future. It fueled a desire to regain what had been lost but also diminished hope. Childhood served as a common denominator, an experience with which all viewers could sympathize. Therefore, manipulated images of innocence would have simultaneously elicited sympathy from adults and motivated them to change the current condition, which, in this case, meant supporting New Deal programs.