Through the eyes of Dorothea Lange

Four children by a water pump, two older children pumping water and the other two younger ones looking on.

Documenting the The Great Depression and Japanese American internment

Marijke Everts (abre numa nova janela) (Europeana Foundation)

Dorothea Lange was an American photojournalist and documentary photographer most notably known for her Great Depression-era work.

She was born in 1895 to second-generation German immigrant parents in New Jersey, USA. At the age of five, she contracted polio which left her right leg weak and gave her a permanent limp. This had a big impact on her; she said:

I've never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and power of it.

She felt that the disability guided, instructed and helped her. While her early work involved shooting portraits of the social elite in San Francisco in her studio, her most iconic works come from her Great Depression documentary photography.

The Great Depression

At the start of the 1930s, around 14 million Americans were out of work, with three million people migrating to California to find opportunities. Dorothea left her photography studio to document their lives.

What she found was poverty and exploitation of migrant labourers and sharecroppers. The image above was taken in a cotton pickers’ camp in Nipomo, California. It highlights the gravity of the situation. A makeshift tent has been put together, a pile of collected wood sits at the far corner of the picture and a child and an adult can be seen peering out of their shelter.

A truck with home belongings and a mother on the side of the road with her baby

Dorothea reported the conditions to the editor of a San Francisco newspaper. Federal authorities were informed and an article was published with some of the images Lange took including the most famous Migrant Mother, which became the most reproduced photograph in the world.

After Pearl Harbor

In 1941, after the Pearl Harbor attack, Lange went on assignment for the War Relocation Authority to document the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans.

five children, three girls and one boy with her hand to their heart

Dorothea's work in this period focused on the suspense and anxiety that the forced collection and removal caused people. Her photograph shows Asian American school children pledging allegiance to the American flag immediately before being removed from their homes and sent to internment camps. It highlights the distortion of incarceration when no crime has been committed.

grandfather looking into the camera with his grandson on his shoulders. He holds his grandsons hands.

These photographs of the internment process were impounded by the authorities and were not made public during World War II, with authorities seemingly worried about how they might be perceived.


Dorothea died on 11 October 1965 of esophageal cancer. Three months after her death, the Museum of Modern Art in New York held a retrospective exhibition of her work. It was their first retrospective solo exhibition of works by a woman photographer which she had helped curate before her death. An elementary school in Nipomo, California, near the site where she had photographed Migrant Mother, was named after her in 2006.

Like everyone, Dorothea Lange was flawed. She made choices at high costs to others (e.g Florence Ownes Thompson, 'Migrant Mother') and simultaneously humanised difficult moments in American history.