Newswise — Recently discovered Depression-era photographs of farmers in the Arkansas Ozarks are more than a significant visual record of rural poverty, says Patsy Watkins, a journalism researcher at the University of Arkansas. The photographers included captions that expand and intensify the power of the image.
A photo album discovered in an attic revealed a collection of about 100 snapshots taken by county relief workers, Opal and Ernest Nicholson, in 1935 in the Ozarks of northwest Arkansas. In a study of the photos to be presented Thursday, Aug. 9, at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Watkins notes that the photos are significant for their "expansion of the visual historical record of the Depression."
During the Depression, the federal government, through the Farm Security Administration, commissioned professional photographers, such as Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn, to document the suffering from poverty, particularly in the rural South, including Arkansas. While the FSA photos have "strongly shaped" the image of Depression poverty with their images of quiet dignity, the framing and captions of the Nicholson photos offer another perspective, Watkins said.
In the Nicholson collection, photos of relief clients typically show the whole family posed in front of their home. There are no close-ups of faces, and the photos usually show all or most of the house to document living conditions, perhaps for reporting purposes.
"The captions are critical," Watkins writes, "in conveying the pathos and sense of acceptance of tragedy that seem to be a common burden for these relief clients."
As an example of the dynamic between image and caption, Watkins points to "Home Over There," a Nicholson photograph of three women standing outside a crude cabin.
In part, the caption reads, "This is the cabin of Aunt Vina Jones. She is very ill with dropsy and will probably not live long. Her sister has come to try to help her by administering tea made of Wahoo roots. "¦ Even while this picture was being made the case worker could hear Mrs. Jones calling for her deceased husband to come and take her to their new home."
"This is a seemingly straightforward picture, but, combined with its caption, it has a subtle power to move us to imagine the suffering of this elderly woman, very ill with dropsy and who will probably not live long," Watkins said. "So many of the Nicholson photos and captions have this strength; they are testimony to the way that words can expand the meaning and power of a photograph."
Other captions comment on the courage and hard work of the clients, individuals the relief workers have known over time.
"These captions suggest the writer was aware that poverty was often regarded as a moral issue and that it was necessary to vouch for the decency and work ethic of the destitute, even though a person's poverty wasn't necessarily due to his or her own failings," Watkins writes.
Watkins suggests two directions for further study. In addition to searching for similar photography projects by Depression-era relief workers in Arkansas or other Southern states, she suggests several approaches to a comparative analysis of the Nicholson photos and FSA photos, particularly those taken in the same area of Arkansas.
The album was discovered by the Nicholson's niece, who shared them with the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale. Additional information is available on the museum's Web site at http://www.springdaleark.org/shiloh/exhibits/rural_relief_intro.htm.
Watkins is an associate professor and chair of the department of journalism in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas.