10 Iconic Photographs That Captured the World’s Imagination


'Migrant Mother'

migrant mother
Florence Owens Thompson, 32, with her young children gazes off into the distance. This photograph, commissioned by the Resettlement Administration, came to symbolize the Great Depression for many Americans. Dorothea Lange/Getty Images

The Great Depression crushed the lives of people around America. In 1936, photojournalist Dorothy Lange was working on behalf of the Resettlement Administration, a government agency helping poor families relocate. She spotted a destitute mother near Nipomo, California.

Florence Owens Thompson was a 32-year-old woman with seven children, who had been scraping for cash as a migrant field worker. In the image Lange captured, two filthy, tousle-haired children shyly turn their faces from the camera while their mother touches her fingers to her face, staring vacantly into the distance.

Thompson and her family were stranded alongside Highway 101 thanks to a broken-down car when Lange stumbled upon them. Thousands of starving migrant workers lingered in a nearby camp, hoping for work — or food — of any kind. Despite her less-than-glamorous appearance, Thompson allowed Lange to take her photograph because she hoped that maybe it would make a difference somehow [source: Phelan].

The picture was immediately published by the San Francisco News, along with a story detailing the prevalent hunger in the work camp. Federal workers rushed food to the area, but by then Thompson and her family had already moved on [source: Gutierrez and Drash].

They eventually settled in Modesto, California where she worked a variety of jobs and living conditions improved. Thompson, a Cherokee, later said she felt exploited and ashamed of that photo. However, when she had a stroke in 1983, her family was able to raise money for her medical care on the strength of that image. The admiring letters and donations she received from strangers at that time caused her to start taking pride in being part of that iconic photo [source: Dunn].