American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


"Introducing America to Americans": FSA Photography and the Construction of Racialized and Gendered Citizens

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies

First Advisor

Susana Peña (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Andrew Hershberger (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Lynn Whitney (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Danielle Kuhl (Other)


Historians and artists have examined the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information (FSA-OWI) Photographic Collection as a broad and deep account of Depression era US experience, and as a valuable collection of early documentary photography. During the Depression, FSA photographs had everyday life implications for those experiencing rural poverty; the images were made and circulated in order to garner support for rural rehabilitation programs. Simultaneously, the images were circulated as visual representations of "Americans" and the rural US citizen. Problematically, the images were circulated within a modern framework of straight photography in connection to a discourse of objectivity. I consider the photographic project within the historical moment in which it was created with a specific focus on the influence of dominant constructions of race, motherhood, and poverty.

The impetus for this research stems from a 1935 photograph by Dorothea Lange of a Mexican-American mother and child which is strikingly similar to her iconic 1936 "Migrant Mother." In stark contrast to the icon, the image to which I refer as the "1935 Migrant Mother" was rendered invisible within the national imaginary. These two images serve as an entry point through which to consider the entire archive in terms of those images of rural mothers and motherhood that were popularly circulated and those images that were left unseen, unprinted, or unmade. I ask how popular readings of FSA photographs as objective or "true" impacted the material which circulated and that which were excluded from the dominant frame.

Using written materials between the photographic unit director, field photographers, and media in conjunction with analysis of circulated photographs of mothers, I argue that the FSA photographs served as popular representations of those who could be imagined as possibly "deserving poor," "client family," "rehabilitatable mother," and "US citizen." The representation of these categories included, almost exclusively, white-appearing subjects. Using FSA photographs of mothers which were not circulated and contain subjects identified as "Mexican," I analyze images of Mexican mothers in relation to dominant racial constructions and trends in the circulated FSA photographs. I argue that representations of Mexican mothers reflected and reinforced the gendered racialization of Mexicans in the US at the time. The analysis of representations of Mexican mothers unveils a history of marginalization and exclusion through the lack of existing images, the lack of varied representation, and the lack of circulation. I conclude by discussing the significance of the way FSA photographs inform the contemporary national imaginary of who is possibly a citizen. My research is historical, but carries implications for contemporary photographic production, consumption, and archival interpretation. By complicating such a well-known archive, it becomes possible to imagine new ways of seeing through a conscious, critical lens.