Assignment 4 (Rework)

Have Photographic Ethics Changed Since the Depression Era and the Present?

A Comparison of a Selection of the Ethical Issues in Migrant Mother and The Afghan Girl



Have the photographic ethics (the guiding principles that determine how we make photographs and how we share them in the public domain) undergone any changes since the Great Depression and present time? Ethical principles are subjective, fluid and can change from one context to another. How people regard a situation will differ greatly according to their life experience, values and culture. Ethics involves concepts such as dignity, respect and responsibility. In this essay I will examine a few of the ethical quandaries, namely diachronicity, anchorage text, Orientalism and technology in the case of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother and Steve McCurry’s The Afghan Girl.


Brief History of Migrant Mother

Dorothea Lange, portrait photographer in San Francisco, was recruited to be a photographer for the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) which succeeded the Resettlement Administration (Curtis, 1986:3). The FSA was part of President F.D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, a series of programs put in place by the administration to bring the country out of the Depression, by introducing various relief schemes, allowing the government to take an active part in the economic and social affairs of the country (Library of Congress, s.d.). In March 1936 Lange came across a desolate camp accommodating over 2,500 pea pickers. She spent about fifteen minutes there, taking six photos of a woman and her four children sitting in a lean-to-tent, working closer to the group and directing them. The woman told her that she had had to sell their tent so that she could buy food for her seven children, who had been living off frozen peas and trapped birds. Lange did not solicit the woman’s name or any personal background information about her.

The FSA photographers provided Roy Stryker, head of the Historical Section, with two captions for their photographs: a general one which provided a background story detailing place, city, and family (available to clients upon request only) and an individual caption which was supposed to be strictly factual and under fifty words in length. This was usually printed on the file print mount (Melville, 1985).

(Fig. 1. Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California 1936)

The story ran in the San Francisco News resulting in the Federal Government sending 20,000 lbs of food to the camp. Unfortunately the woman, later identified as Florence Thompson, and her children left the camp the same day Lange took the photographs, so did not benefit from this aid.


Brief history of Afghan Girl

Steve McCurry was a relatively unknown photographer with some freelance experience at the time he made the photograph later known as the “Afghan Girl” in 1985. He was travelling through a refugee camp in Peshawar on the Pakistani border when he entered the girls’ school tent. The teacher gave him permission to photograph and he spent some time photographing some of the girls attending class, working his way to the little 10-year-old girl with the striking green eyes[1]. His photos were subsequently submitted to the National Geographic magazine and one was selected for the cover. Originally the picture editor had chosen the photo in which the girl, Sharbat Gula, was holding her shawl across her face as the cover photo, but his decision was overruled by the magazine editor (The ArtSpace Editors, 2018).

After 9/11 there was a renewed interest in the Afghan Girl and National Geographic decided to launch a search for her. When McCurry rediscovered Gula seventeen years later, she remembered him as that was the only time she had been photographed. McCurry photographed her wearing her burqa veil, holding the original photograph. This feature ran in National Geographic in 2002.

McCurry thought it right that Gula and her family receive compensation for the use of her image. National Geographic arranged medical treatment for the family and education for the children. McCurry also helped her financially over the years in various ways. National Geographic also set up The Afghan Girls’ Fund which later became The Afghan Children’s Fund when education opportunities for boys were included.



The diachronic[2] evolution of these two images is quite astounding. Migrant Mother is touted as being the “most widely reproduced photograph in the entire history of photographic image making” (Stein, 2003:345; Finnegan, 2000:344) featuring on book covers, postage stamps, colouring books, parodies, T-shirts and cushion covers to name just a few, a symbol of the Great Depression, and motherhood, while Afghan Girl is the most recognized image in the history of National Geographic (Schwartz-DuPre, 2010) and has been recreated in sculptures, mosaics, paintings, book covers, posters, and depicted on film.  That both images have connotative receptivity is without doubt as both have become branded in commercial culture and their meaning shifts with each change of context.

Fig. 2 A sample of the diachronic evolution of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother photograph.

Both images were driven by the politics of the day – in Migrant Mother’s case it was Roosevelt’s New Deal policies to combat poverty arising from the Great Depression; in the case of The Afghan Girl, it was Reagan’s covert support of the Mujahideen in waging war against the Soviets and communism in Afghanistan (Taylor, 2014). The Afghan Girl provided a way of garnering public support for the war.

Each time these images are used in different contexts, their meaning is added to or altered, but as Hariman and Lucaites (2018:323) state, it is this very appropriation that leads to the iconicity of the photographs. The photographs have gone through different mechanical reproductions: firstly as document (original photo), art, advertisement and fundraiser. Each reproduction “articulates the traffic in pain” (Edwards, 2007:76) in that new knowledge emerges as we look back over the timeline that informs each generation of viewers differently.

The Afghan Girl’s suffering depicted by her haunted expression and ragged clothing, has been aestheticized, causing her to become desirable and exotic in the viewers’ eyes and has become a most sought after “possession”. “Photographs objectify: they turn an event or a person into something that can be possessed” (Sontag, 2003:81). This ownership entails a sense of privilege and power (over the disadvantaged). McCurry sells autographed prints on his website, not to mention the many books the Afghan Girl graces and the calendar that was offered to new subscribers of National Geographic[3], all of which offer a level of spectatorship. This psychological call to action provokes in the readership, what Schwartz-DuPre terms, a “rhetoric of rescue”[4]. which can be triggered by “disaster pornography”[5].

In the case of Migrant Mother, the image belongs to the United States government and as such is a commodity that can be purchased for commercial use by any interested party. However, the aura of the original[6] is so strongly entrenched that each appropriation of the Migrant Mother image over the course of time seems to draw on the collective memory responses to the original image and uses that as its base in adopting a new politicized statement in a new context as we see in the example of the Black Panther appropriation in which the image has become racialized (see Fig. 2).


Comparison of Ethical Issues

Both Migrant Mother and Afghan Girl offer little value as reportage images. There is no context in either of the photographs. Both are closely cropped focussing on the faces of the subjects. In the case of Migrant Mother, Lange directed the two children standing on either side of Thompson to turn away so that the focus would be on the mother, while positioning her hand so that the viewer’s gaze would be drawn to the mother’s face. Apart from the anxious and worried expression on the mother’s face, there are only a few clues that connote this family’s dire circumstances: the dirt on the baby’s face and clothes, the frayed sleeve on the mother’s jacket and the holes in the one child’s sleeve. The high contrast in which the photo was initially published in Survey Graphic further emphasised the poverty and suffering (Finnegan, 2000:341).

Moreover the pose and averted eyes allude to Christian imagery, specifically the Madonna and Child. Lange’s photo bears a striking resemblance to a painting by William Adolphe Bouguereau (Charity or the Indigent Family, 1865) (Hariman and Lucaites, 2007). The absence of a father figure would have evoked paternalistic attitudes from the readership, thereby creating a capacity for action to provide aid.

Fig. 3. Charity or The Indigent Family’, 1865 – 1865

The Afghan Girl’s pose is similar to that found on the cover of fashion magazines. Even the National Geographic cover bears this out with the masthead overtop, sub-headlines down the side of the image. Her European sea-green eyes act as punctum , creating a “suture” (Burgin, 1982:118; Lutz and Collins, 1991:138), which triggers a form of identification with the Western readership (the American public) while at the same time depicting the young girl as the “exotic Oriental” with regards to her dress.

Figure 4. National Geographic cover, Vol 167, No. 6, June 1985

Anchorage Text

The information that Lange recorded in her notebook was misleading and factually incorrect. As a result of this, the American public were misled. In Lange’s fieldnotes the caption noted for the photograph included: “Seven hungry children. Father is native Californian. Destitute in pea pickers’ camp … because of failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tires to buy food” (Library of Congress, 1936). According to Thompson’s son it was their tent they sold (Dunn, 1995). The Library of Congress, where the image is stored, has subsequently corrected the caption on its website. The heading that ran with a couple of the other images, when it was published in the San Francisco News, read: “Ragged, Hungry, Broke, Harvest Workers Live in Squalor” (MOMA, s.d.).

On the other hand, the only caption accompanying the Afghan Girl is on National Geographic’s 1985 cover, is situated bottom right below the drape of her hijab: “Haunted eyes tell of an Afghan refugee’s fears” thereby allowing the readership to create their own connotational meaning for the image. There is no mention of her in the initial article at all.


Through her failure to question Florence Thompson about her personal history, Lange never realised that Thompson was a Native American (born Cherokee) as she “displayed no outward signs of “Indianness” (Stein, 2003:351) so Lange represented her in a Western tradition of “Christian maternity” (Stein, 2003:351). Would the photo have received as much traction if Lange had realised that Thompson was Native American and captioned her photographs accordingly? I believe not. Given the time period, the mass media was more inclined to focus on the situation of the white population and Stryker was known to be very media-oriented, and had personal biases against Native Americans, which probably reflected the general American public’s opinion. Furthermore, Lange, aware of Stryker’s biases, would probably not even have taken the photographs if she had realised Thompson was Native American. Perhaps Thompson deliberately withheld that information from Lange because of the ethnocide policy of removing Native American children from their homes and placing them into government run boarding schools in order to learn how to assimilate into Caucasian culture (Dunn, 1995).

When interviewed by photographer and producer for Nebraska Educational Television, Bill Ganzel in the late 1970s, Florence Thompson made it known that she was very upset about the “Grapes of Wrath stereotyping” (Dunn, 1995) which had been inflicted on her life through this image. She felt exploited and complained to the media that she had never benefitted from the image at all. As Hariman and Lucaites (2007) succinctly state: on the one hand one can question the motives of Lange and those who benefitted financially from the photograph; on the other Thompson is indicted as “full-blooded Cherokee Indian who fails to understand her place in “America’s” collective memory, and who is made to appear willing to trade it all for a few pieces of silver”. Why did Thompson wait forty years to voice her displeasure? Living in America, she would surely have been exposed to media where her photograph was featured. Her outrage that Lange had not even sent her a copy of the photograph seems rather gratuitous because in Lange’s defence, how would she know where to send the photograph? Thompson had no fixed address at that stage.

The Afghan Girl is the symbol of the suffering and the fear of the Afghan people, caused by the brutalizing effects of war (Zeiger, 2008:267). With her we see the exotic Other represented by the veil, which in turns connotes a certain religion. Did McCurry disrespect Gula’s religious practice of wearing the veil when he took the first photograph? I don’t believe so. Muslim religious practices among the Pashtun dictate that girls wear burqas upon reaching puberty (Huda, 2019). Gula, aged ten, only wore a head scarf so obviously was still regarded as a child, not a woman.  But what about the photographs taken in 2002, where Gula uncovered her face? Westerners tend to regard the veil as a “prison” and the “women as oppressed victims of gender or religious practice passively awaiting rescue” (Zeiger, 2008:267). As Gula’s husband had to give permission for McCurry to photograph his wife’s face, does Zeiger’s statement (2008:277) that the removal of the veil is the ultimate form of colonialization really hold true? Bearing in mind that Gula’s physical revelation was fleeting, but McCurry’s photographs will bear witness for many years to come, I would be inclined, putting personal bias aside, to agree with Zeiger.

Fig. 5 Sharbat Gula

Technology and Iris Patterning

 The Search for the Afghan Girl movie, argues Schwartz-DuPre, acts like an advertisement for the efficiency of US government technology (Schwartz-DuPre, 2007:446). The Afghan Girl was used more like a “teaser” throughout the movie, the main thrust of the movie revolving around the photographer and the biometric technology[7].

How can the use of iris patterning and biometric technology to confirm identity be considered ethical? Is this not an invasion of privacy? Did Sharbat Gula give permission for this? The fact that these photographs were sent to the FBI probably means that Gula’s retinal scan now resides in a central database with the US Department of Homeland Security. “Biometrics literally commits the body to a classification” (Schwartz-DuPre, 2007:443).

The surrounding publicity arising from the “rediscovery” served to alert the Pakistani authorities to Gula’s illegal status in that country and in 2016 she was arrested, served a 15-day jail sentence, and was deported back to Afghanistan.

In an interview with the BBC, Gula acknowledged that she was rather conflicted about the photograph; at first resenting it for her 15-day imprisonment in a Pakistani jail and her subsequent deportation back to Afghanistan, but she later felt a sense of pride and honour, acknowledging that the income from the photograph has helped many widows and orphans (Afghan ‘green-eyed girl’ on her future – BBC News, 2017). She wants to establish an NGO where people can get free medical treatment.



So have photographic ethics changed since the Depression era? With the introduction of technologies such as iris patterning, digital manipulation, the advent of social media I do believe that ethics have become more complex over time. Photographs are not neutral. By their signifiers, location and context they inform the viewer.

In both cases it is the very decontextualization of the subjects which has contributed to their diachronic evolution, metamorphosing them to generic and more reusable objects. The photographs contain no elements that could date them. By not naming their subjects, both Lange and McCurry rendered their subjects powerless. As Sontag argues:

“A portrait that declines to name its subject becomes complicit … in the cult of celebrity … to grant only the famous their names demotes the rest to representative instances of their occupations, their ethnicities, their plights” (Sontag, 2003:79).

However, in the case of Migrant Mother this was by design because Stryker, believed that anonymity created a universal representation of the common man/woman (Curtis, 1986:5). Whereas, in McCurry’s case, the details are fuzzy. Zeiger (2008:278) reports that the author of the original National Geographic article did obtain Gula’s details a few years after the event and passed them on to McCurry’s assistant. Whether he ever received them or forgot about them is unknown.

Likewise, the absence of their narrative resulted in their depiction taking the form of a universal representational status which depended on the viewers’ perceptions of the naturalistic enthymeme[8], thereby shifting power to the viewers. This is a Panopticon of sorts. Both subjects were observed (unknowingly) by millions of people through various forms of media. Both were classified: Afghan Girl –veiled – a signifier of Third World women’s inferiority, refugee – signifying helplessness, Oriental – the other. Migrant Mother – socio-economic conditions – “destitute pea pickers” and “mother of seven children” and poverty, religious pose signifying motherhood. What if their actual narratives had been told? Would the resulting aid have been as great as it was? I believe not because as Einstein stated the power of the imagination is greater than knowledge. Knowledge is limited, while imagination draws on our unique experiences and culture to make something new (Lavelle, 2014). Imagine the infinite narratives that would have abounded with the viewers of these two images. Their real stories would probably have appeared rather tame in comparison.

Understandably, due to primitive conditions in Peshawar and corrupt human nature, it was necessary to implement a verification mechanism to ascertain Gula’s identity, “the use of biometric technology assigns identity to truth—you either are or are not whom you claim to be. Identity is, or is not, authentic” (Schwartz-DuPre, 2007:443).

Did the photographs that Lange and McCurry took constitute “poverty porn[9]” or disaster pornography? I believe that regarding Migrant Mother it did. Lange, although receiving permission from Thompson, misrepresented her situation by using inaccurate information in her captions, thereby stereotyping the woman and her family. Had she investigated further she should have learned that Thompson was of Cherokee heritage whose people had endured forced relocation to Oklahoma ( editors, 2009). Thompson only benefitted financially when she was on her deathbed after a plea from her children for funds to cover medical expenses (Dunn, 1995). However, I feel more ambivalent in the matter of the Afghan Girl. Yes, McCurry profited handsomely from the photograph, but various charities were set up by National Geographic in order to provide aid and education to the Afghan children, and later when Gula was found, further aid was forthcoming to her directly.

On the other hand, it is the job of the social documentarian or journalist to bear witness to these situations, and to give a voice to those who would otherwise not be heard. This hopefully, will have the result of inspiring the public to acts of altruism to alleviate situations. The photographs are there to serve as visual reminders so that the suffering is remembered and not repeated.

— oOo —


[1] There is a lot of discrepancy in various journal articles and in McCurry’s accounts about how old the girl was. Most instances mention that she was twelve or thirteen. However, in an interview with the BBC in 2017, Sharbat Gula related that she was ten years old when the photograph was taken (Afghan ‘green-eyed girl’ on her future – BBC News, 2017).

[2] The study of change over different times (Chandler, 2007:248)

[3] National Geographic magazine is an unofficial arm of the US government, providing it with maps and vital information about other countries, especially during the Cold War era. It is “a friendly extension of government” (Schwartz-DuPre, 2010:342).

[4] (Schwartz-DuPre, 2010:337) defines a rhetoric of rescue as ‘a discourse that deploys the power of chaos to evoke responses in concerned citizens.

[5] “… the gruesome fascination with depicting and commercially benefiting from people’s suffering and degradation” (Schwartz-DuPre, 2010:347).

[6] “The removal of authority within the original work of art infers a loss of authority, however, in regards to mass consumption, this liberation is not necessarily contingent” (ginal, 2008).

[7] (National Geographic Search for the Afghan Girl Pt 1, 2010; National Geographic Search for the Afghan girl Pt 2, 2010; National Geographic Search for the Afghan girl Pt 3, 2010; National Geographic Search for the Afghan girl Pt 4, 2010).

[8] The assumption on the part of the viewer that the image is “real” in three ways: representational realism (represents something in the world), ontological realism (occurring at a particular time and place) and mechanical realism (without intervention by the photographer) (Finnegan, 2001).

[9]  A tactic used by NGOs and charities to garner empathy and contributions from donors by showing images of people, especially children, in destitute situations (Ethics and Photography in Developing Countries, s.d.).


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Figure 1. Lange, D. (1936) Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California. [1 negative : nitrate ; 4 x 5 in.] At: (Accessed on 25 January 2020)

Figure 2. Kuit, L (2020) A sample of the diachronic evolution of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother photograph. Collage created from various images sourced from the internet.

Figure 3. Bouguereau, W.A. (1865) Charity or The Indigent Family’, 1865 – [Painting] At: (Accessed on 11 February 2020)

Figure 4. National Geographic cover, Vol 167, No. 6, June 1985 At: (Accessed 18 February 2020)

Figure 5. McCurry, S (2002) Sharbat Gula. At: (Accessed 18 February 2020)