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‘You have seen their faces’

September 23, 2007

In 1937 photographer Margaret Bourke-White and Southern novelist Erskine Caldwell published the book ‘You Have Seen Their Faces‘ (Viking Press). It was a collaboration, she made the photographs and he wrote the text, about the rural American South and its troubles, the despair of a ”worn-out agricultural empire” (p.2).

Margaret Bourke-White had already established herself as a skilled industrial photographer, but in the 1930’s adapted to a photojournalistic style and worked in a more socially committed documentary photography.

Margaret and Caldwell received praising but also critical comments. Dorothea Lange who few years later published a similar book about the problems of share-croppers was critical to them for writing the captions themselves rather than quoting the words people actually said.

See for example the picture below. It was accompanied by the caption McDaniel, Georgia, I get paid very well. A dollar a day when I’m working”

bourke_white_margaret_youhaveseentheirfaces01

I find amazing that 70 years after the taking of this photograph the caption reveals that we have managed to export our immiserated working-classes abroad. The line still sounds too familiar, although we know that now it doesn’t come from our own national backyard, but some worker in South-East Asia or South America, or elsewhere in the ‘developing world’ whereby our big Western corporations have found fertile ground to produce cheap and cost-effective products.

Nevertheless, important questions about the photojournalistic practice are raised, which remain pertinent today as much as back then: Was their photographic work a type of propaganda and did they exploit their subjects? Ultimately, what is the nature of ‘documentary’ photography?

Is a document, and thus a photographic document, something that states objective facts, or could also be something that helps us understand a human situation emotionally?

Maybe it could help to know the following story, taking place during the making of the ‘You have seen their faces’ book. The story is published in Susan Goldman Rubin’s ‘Margaret Bourke-White‘ (1999, Abrams Inc.).

“Once [Margaret] took a picture of a woman combing her hair at a bureau made out of a wooden box. Before taking the portrait Margaret rearranged the objects on top of the bureau. Afterward, Caldwell scolded her. He told Margaret she should have left everything just the way she found it to reflect the woman’s taste and personality instead of her own. ‘This was a new point of view to me‘ Margaret wrote in her autobiography. ‘I was learning that to understand another human being you must gain some insight into the conditions which made him what he is’ (italics added).

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