Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Disaster and Government Response

The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the New Deal

Captions and Photographs

Learning Targets

  • I can explain how photographs and captions/descriptions of these images can help shape perceptions of reality.
  • I can describe how the Farm Security Administration assigned captions to help build support for New Deal spending, specifically spending for relocating farmers and migrant workers.
  • I can recognize the amount of knowledge needed about a photograph to accurately write a caption or description


The FSA required its photographers to write captions for their photographs. The rule under which they worked was that you were not allowed to take peoples’ names, but you were expected to document the place, the time, and the year. Some photographers, such as Dorothea Lange, were compelled by the background and stories of the people in their photographs. Lange wanted her photographs to be seen through the lives of individuals, and wanted the photographs to help tell the story of a sharecropper or a migrant farm worker. As a result, she would have somewhat longer captions describing her photographs.

Linda Gordon, the author of a biography on Lange, suggested that sometimes Lange made what she called ”general captions” when she was photographing either a lot of images of one family, or a lot of images of a whole group of people that would be characteristic of the whole. These captions were long and detailed. She did not do it while she was photographing, but would ask people questions about their lives, take some photographs, and then go to her notebook and record all of the background and detail she could recall. Often she would capture what they said verbatim. Some of the famous phrases that are associated with Lange come directly from the people she photographed. For example, "we’ve been tractored out," came from her interactions from one person in the Dust Bowl, and became part of the caption. In North Carolina, with tobacco workers, Lange wrote one general caption that is a thousand words long. It was four pages and described the process of growing tobacco from the moment of planting all the way through to the moment of drying it in a tobacco shed. Some photographers believe that you get better photographs if you have a completely fresh and untutored eye. Lange, to the contrary, believed that you took better photographs when you really knew a lot about the peoples’ lives at work.

The captions that the FSA photographers provided were edited to help direct the viewer to a particular image. For example, check out the captions for images 8057, 8058, 8060, and 8059.

Questions to Consider

  • Why do photographers provide captions for the pictures they take?
  • How can background information enhance understanding of a photograph?
  • Why is it important to know the context of a photograph (e.g., when it was taken, where it was taken, why the photographer took it, etc.)?

Begin the Activity

Have the students take the two images they selected for the previous activity (Maintaining Home) and have them think about a caption they might write for each. The photos provided in this activity are examples of captions that provide more details, context, and background than those from the previous activity (8057, 8058, 8059, 8060). This is not something we can do simply, however, without first knowing more information. What questions need to be answered about each photograph to write a caption? For example, if you were to write a new caption for the “Migrant family from Arkansas playing hill-billy songs” photograph, you might ask: Where was this was taken? Who lived in the tent? Who were the children? Who owned the musical instruments?

With a partner, have students identify the key questions they would want answered if they were to provide a caption for each image, and then brainstorm the key words they would use to conduct an online search to find answers to those questions. Have them try to find as much information as they are able about one of the photographs by searching online for answers to the questions. If they are able to find enough information, have them provide a caption for the photograph that would be historically accurate, but also help get the message of the FSA out to the public.

next: Belongings from Home

Grade Level

High School


Earth and Space Science
English Language Arts
U.S. History


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