The American Dream is said to be attainable by anyone. Politicians boast about this notion during campaign speeches. “If you work hard enough, you will achieve your ambitions in America!” Movies throughout time, such as The Pursuit of Happiness, Cinderella, or Arthur, portray the “rags to riches” story that attract a sizable audience. Famous people like Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, or Sam Walton have all come from financially meager backgrounds but they acquired great wealth in their adult lives. It is these stories, fact or fiction, that give life and hope in the American Dream. For some people, the American Dream does not have to mean huge riches. It could involve living in a comfortable home. It can entail providing necessities like food and clothing for a family along with attaining some extras like toys and the ability to take a vacation every year. This American Dream is certainly a reality for many people, but for others like Florence Owens Thompson pictured in the famous “Migrant Mother” photograph, the American Dream is an absolute fallacy.
The “Migrant Mother” photo was taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936. Florence Owens Thompson is the focal point of the picture. The woman is surrounded by three of her children. Thompson carries a worried expression. Two of her children hide their faces from the camera, perhaps out of shame. The third child is an helpless infant. The photograph displays depravity. These people are wearing old, torn clothes. They appear unbathed. The message is the mother and her family are poor. This picture is iconic for not only presenting what poverty looked like in the 1930s, but because of the emotional response it received. A parent’s job is to provide necessities to his or her family and it is apparent that Thompson was unable to do so. Lange took this picture to show the inhumanity of being one of America’s poor. For the people who were not devastated by the Depression, Lange was telling them the American Dream is not alive. The message was the system is broken and we as Americans need to do something about it. As photographer Jacob Riis brought awareness of the horrors of child labor (and poverty) around the turn of the century, Lange was doing the same with her pictures as she was exposing the degradation of poverty. Both photographers were motivating people to act. The “Migrant Mother” was an important picture then as it is today. While America has not experienced this grand level of poverty since the Great Depression, this photograph is a reminder of the time when we did. It reinstates that poverty is real and that the notion of the American Dream does not exist for all.