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50 Years Later: How Photographs Influenced a Career

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In the following guest post, Prints & Photographs Division Senior Cataloging Specialist Kara Chittenden interviews National Public Radio reporter Joseph Shapiro.

Photo of Joseph Shapiro reporting from the NPR studio.
Joseph Shapiro reporting from the NPR studio. Photo by Wanyu Zhang/NPR. Used by permission.

Joseph Shapiro is an investigative reporter for National Public Radio. When he was a teenager living in Washington, D.C., he was intrigued by the photographs in the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photograph Collection in the Prints & Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. He returned again and again to study them.

The Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photograph Collection (FSA/OWI) has been one of the most frequently consulted collections in the Prints & Photographs Division for decades. Begun as part of the Resettlement Administration (1935-1937), its original aim was to produce a visual record of America’s rural problems and the agency’s programs to address them. The goal was to educate farmers about assistance available to them and to influence Congress to support the programs. The photography project continued as part of the Farm Security Administration (1937-1942) and the Office of War Information (1942-1944), ultimately forming extensive pictorial documentation of the Great Depression and wartime activities.

I wanted to hear more about Joe’s experience using the collection fifty years ago and how exposure to the photographs may have influenced him in his career and life.

Kara: Please tell us about your experience using the FSA/OWI photograph collections when you were a teenager.

Joe: I was a high school student in Washington, D.C. I was going to Woodrow Wilson High School in Tenleytown, the school recently renamed Jackson-Reed for Edna Jackson, who was my wonderful world history teacher. She was one of the first Black teachers at Wilson. Vincent Reed, who was the first Black principal, was a caring, unifying principal at the school that had been largely or almost all white. They changed the boundaries in DC and it became an equal number of Black and white students.

Shows researchers in the Prints & Phototgraphs Reading Room viewing the FSA/OWI file prints stored in the gunmetal gray cabinets.
Researchers in the Prints & Phototgraphs Reading Room viewing the FSA/OWI file prints stored in metal cabinets. 1982.

I remember taking the N bus from my house on Chesapeake Street in American University Park to the Library of Congress. It was maybe a 45-minute ride. This was before the subway. I went back multiple times that senior year of high school and then through my years in college. There was just this thrill of discovery and I remember going through the photos that are in black-and-white there. They were mounted on thick gray cardboard and kept in gunmetal gray file cabinets. You’d open up a cabinet drawer and there’d be these stunning photos to go through. Each one was this great discovery, like unwrapping a present on your birthday.

Each one was like a short story taking me back to a moment in American history. Holding the photograph, it was like you were connected, like you went back all those years to the Depression and ended up with Marion Post Wolcott in Mississippi or Arthur Rothstein in Oklahoma. I already had an interest in American history. I also had an interest in photography. I was taking a lot of photographs and I was interested in the composition and what these photographers documented.

I had just read the Grapes of Wrath. That book is very similar to those photographs, telling the story about people very honestly, without overly sentimentalizing people. That’s what I really liked about the photographs–there was just this honest documentation of people. They caught people in hard times, maybe standing in a broken door frame of a battered unpainted house, somebody wearing ragged clothes. But there was a dignity always to the people that were depicted. I spent my time looking at those FSA photographs and really delighting in all this discovery that took me to these places.

The librarians gave me lots of freedom to go through, undisturbed, and then they told me that I could print them up. It felt like a real privilege and a connection to the photographers and these places that they went to. You were holding these great documents of history in your hand. I remember getting three or four prints and putting them in cardboard frames and putting them up in my dormitory my freshman year at Carleton College in 1971.

I had Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. I had Arthur Rothstein’s photo of the father and the sons in Oklahoma across the landscape with the dust storm. That’s an amazing picture. Just the composition of it is beautiful and then the idea–it showed the harshness, the bleakness of that environment, sort of like a global warming warning. I just loved the composition and the storytelling of that photograph.

Destitute pea pickers in California… Photo by Dorothea Lange, 1936. Shows how file prints, mounted on boards with description information, appear in the FSA/OWI reading room file.

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma. Photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1936. This and the remaining photos in this post show only a view of the image itself, without the text and accompanying information visible on the file prints.

The other one that I really loved was that Russell Lee photo of a couple in front of the big Zenith radio. It looks like a happy evening, there was something familiar and positive about it, but there are telling details, like the big hole in his sock. So many of these photos you would study, they’d have these great telling details. As a journalist, you’re always looking for a telling detail that adds depth to what you’re writing about, like a hole in somebody’s sock.

Couple sitting next to radio, maan reading and woman working at craft. Tenant purchase clients at home. Hidalgo County, Texas. Photo by Russell Lee, 1939.
Tenant purchase clients at home. Hidalgo County, Texas. Photo by Russell Lee, 1939.

Kara: As an investigative reporter, you have given voice to people who are frequently overlooked, such as disabled people and children in the foster care system. Do you see any connections between your focus on overlooked communities and the FSA/OWI photographers who often documented people in difficult circumstances?

Joe: I think you can draw a line from those photos to my reporting. I think those photos and my stories reflect similar values, that they tell stories about people, about American life. Often people who are sort of at the margins, dealing with poverty. I try to tell those people’s stories with respect and when I interview someone, I recognize that I owe them something. They’re letting their story be told to the public. They’re sharing something personal. And usually they’re hoping that their story can help someone else. It’s like those photographers. We’re documenting somebody.

I owe those people respect and I think that’s what the photographers did when they set out to tell these stories. They didn’t set people up as objects of pity. They didn’t overly heroicize people. They presented people as they were. They told their stories and that’s what I tried to do with my reporting. I think the FSA photographs that I studied connect to my reporting today, but I was probably predisposed to think that way when I first encountered the photographs. I think that’s why they resonated with me. So I guess it was a lesson for me–what Walker Evans or Carl Mydans or Russell Lee could do as a photographer. Or the way a journalist could tell a story in a respectful way and, also, find those telling details.

Sometimes there was irony or some anger in the picture. There’s a Dorothea Lange photo of two men walking down the road and there’s a billboard on the side for the train that says next time, take the train and relax and shows somebody seated happily in a train. I think that in my journalism, I’m trying to do something in the same spirit as those photographers. I think the reason that I admire that photography so much is that it reflects the kind of way I want to see the world and document people who are on the margins of our society or going through hard times. That was one of the first times that I saw how to tell those stories in an honest and respectful way.

Two men walking on dirt road, about to pass a billboard that says, "Next Time, Try the Train. Relax."Toward Los Angeles, California. Photo by Dorothea Lange, 1937.
Toward Los Angeles, California. Photo by Dorothea Lange, 1937.

About a decade ago, I was writing a piece about a civil rights era cold case. I wanted to look at the Marion Post Wolcott photos from the Mississippi Delta. I was in Fayette, Mississippi. I was trying to see if she’d done anything from Fayette. She didn’t, but in 1940 she’d photographed a nearby town, Port Gibson. I went through those photographs and it just felt there was some connection; I’d been through some of these streets that she photographed.

Men socializing on porch outside store. Port Gibson, Mississippi. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, 1940.
Port Gibson, Mississippi. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, 1940.

A couple of years ago, I saw the Gordon Parks exhibit at National Gallery of Art. It had some of his photographs from Washington, D.C. The one that struck me was a photograph of a boy, a young boy on crutches in the frame of a door. I wondered what happened to him. He was nine or ten–he’d be in his late eighties now. I was wondering if he’s still alive. I did a lot of detective work. I blew it up and you can see it says Seaton Road and you can see the address in the doorframe across the street. By doing that and using Google earth and walking around, I could figure out the address of the house that this boy is standing in front of. I did some research and I found out that Seaton Road, now Seaton Street, was a few blocks of densely packed houses, tenements, with Black families, a lot of kids.

Washington, D.C. Young boy standing in the doorway of his home on Seaton Road in the northwest section. His leg was cut off by a streetcar while he was playing in the street. Photo by Gordon Parks, 1942.
Washington, D.C. Young boy standing in the doorway of his home on Seaton Road in the northwest section. His leg was cut off by a streetcar while he was playing in the street. Photo by Gordon Parks, 1942.

I went to the Washingtoniana collection of the DC public library. I looked up the old directories and I found the family and I found the story of the boy who, playing in the street, got run over by the trolley or the bus and lost his leg. I thought, wow, now I can find this guy. Unfortunately for me, his name is George Washington. I know his brothers and sisters. I know his parents. I’ve had some who I thought could have been him and it led to dead ends. I’d still love to find that George Washington and tell the story of the young boy who lost a leg when he was eight or nine years old in that Gordon Parks photograph.

It felt like a privilege to be able to go through those photographs and it was an important discovery and I think there are definitely direct lines from that collection to my reporting. Maybe I was predisposed to think that way, but I think it’s not a stretch to look at the types of reporting I do, the stories I tell, and see a connection to those great photographers from the New Deal, FSA/OWI photographs.

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Comments (7)

  1. Wonderful interview, articulate fellow and sensitive interviewer questions. Gratifying to hear how the FSA photos have been used. Thanks, Kara and P&P.

  2. Very interesting story.

    The writer mentioned the detail of the big hole in the sock…but he failed to mention that the man looked like he was also wearing a tie. There must be more of a story to this picture.

    Was the couple staged by the photographer? Were they paid for this picture? Whyv was the woman wearing the hair net? What was she doing, handwork of some sort?

    So many questions could be asked here.

  3. What an inspirational piece about a range of topics. It reinforces how critical preservation,accessibility to physical materials in libraries by in depth researching our country histories is sacred.

  4. Great piece and fascinating observations about the impact of the amazing rural photographs from 1930s and then the story of one in particular from DC. Hope it still proves possible to learn more about what happened to young George Washington!

  5. This clearly demonstrates the power of photographs, preservation and the curiosity and sensitivity of Joe. Now I understand more fully why he was a reporter in Memphis, Tennessee when I first met him years ago.

  6. Joe, so glad to call you my friend. I’ve always said you are one of the most decent people I know.

  7. Wonderful interview that causes one to look closely at the photographs and to appreciate their power. Thanks for. Continuing the great exploration of P&P’s treasures.

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