Sometimes the present sounds like the future. It’s the year 2021 and we’ve landed on Mars. Climate Clocks hanging above cities around the world tick down the time left for humanity to enact transformational changes to avoid raising the global temperature past the point of no return — a deadline less than seven years in the future. The Extinction Rebellion marches in the street as politicians and corporations take limited action, perhaps comforted in the knowledge that, as ever, it will be the poor who suffer the worst and most devastating effects soonest, while their money and privilege will buy themselves a little more time.
As the maxim goes, history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. The better part of a century ago, photographer Dorothea Lange set out to document, among other things, the devastating environmental and social impact of the Dust Bowl for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s — another environmental crisis which was, in part, brought about by the overfarming of lands in the name of Manifest Destiny and financial gain. Lange set out to document the conditions of those workers affected by the crisis, documenting the evidence of rural poverty in America that she found in her travels as well as the benefits provided by the New Deal economic policies in response. Photographing pea pickers, farmers, the destitute, and the displaced, she captured the tone of America, and communicated the hardships of the Great Depression. Her photographs led to government relief, raised public awareness, and effected social change.
But Lange was not just a documentarian, she was an artist. Her photographs are so impactful and enduring not because they communicate the particular circumstance before them, but because they show us more than what they capture on film. Through their beauty, they show us why we should care, and they make us want to pay attention.
Even those who don’t know Lange’s legacy often know her “Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California” photograph, which has become one of the most reproduced photographs in history. After her photograph of a mother taking shelter in a pea-pickers camp surrounded by her children was published in The San Francisco News in 1936, the State Relief Administration delivered food rations to 2,000 itinerant fruit pickers in Nipomo in response. The “Migrant Mother” photograph has since risen above its context, time, and place, and become an icon and has been adapted to represent the plight of a variety of groups. Mothers, migrants, minorities, the working class, and even The Black Panthers have all adapted its visual rhetoric to articulate an emotional appeal to the viewer and give voice and specificity to the need for empathy and change.
Lange’s photographs show us the past, but their light shines past their subjects to illuminate a common humanity — showing us how to find dignity in the destitute, pay attention to the impact of policies, and care about people whose paths will never cross our own. Not only do her photographs hold striking parallels with our modern political concerns — pointing their gaze at the effects of inequality, environmental practices, the action or inaction of government — but those which we are likely to face in the coming decades, their lessons and themes and faces repeating and rhyming and spiraling out in fractal patterns.
When I look at Lange’s photographs I think, so where do we go from here? What more do we need to see?
Without action, it seems likely that our short-sighted environmental practices will soon make our home planet uninhabitable, depleting the Earth of its resources, and sparking a chain of events that will tumble the world into a series of increasingly catastrophic reactions. Climate change and its accompanying flooding and droughts will not only cause massive biodiversity loss and crop failure, making whole regions of land untenable, but will create multitudes of displaced people to dwarf any refugee crises the world has yet seen. With heavy environmental, financial, and health disasters, political conflicts provoked by limited resources and social friction raging, and the effects of overpopulation, talks of moon colonies and Mars colonization will cease to be distant dreams of science fiction and become real, last-ditch efforts for a world bursting at its seams and clawing for a desperate chance at hope and survival.
While Lange’s subject also seemed desperate, the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression eventually lifted. President Roosevelt and several New Deal initiatives worked to address the environmental degradation that had led to the Dust Bowl and aid the plight of impoverished workers. The Soil Erosion Service and the Prairie States Forestry Project in 1935 put farmers to work planting trees as windbreaks and combatted soil erosion by implementing new farming techniques in the Great Plains.
To be sure, there are also positive things happening in the world right now. There is a “lifeline” to balance the “deadline” on the looming Climate Clocks, proclaiming a steadily growing percent of world energy coming from renewable sources. Sustainability and societal impact have begun to take more urgent prominence in corporate governance, and, in many ways, humanity is more empathetic, informed, and united than ever due to the internet’s ability to foster connection, community, and understanding regardless of location. While the outlook often feels inescapably apocalyptic and grim, we remain at a critical junction in which there is still time to turn back from the seemingly inevitable.
As corporations chase economic opportunity after opportunity like Depression-area migrants chasing the crops off their lands, and as this pattern of human behavior threatens to continue on this planet and then possibly the next — or the next — perhaps we, too, need to stare the consequence of our present in the eye and see ourselves in the afterlife of photographs that refuse to stay in the past.