The Shafter Experience: Multi-Media production and The Farm Security Administration

Like many photographers I became aware of the Farm Security Administration when I began studying photography at school. Of course I had seen the most famous of the images from the archive, The Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange and Fleeing a Dust Storm by Arthur Rothstein, but I had never looked at the history of the project. During my time as a student in the Loyalist College Photojournalism program I began to study the archive housed at the Library of Congress and presented online for all of us to explore. For the past five years however I have had the good fortune to teach students in The History of Photojournalism course at Loyalist College. There is nothing that can expand and solidify your knowledge of a subject like introducing and sharing the knowledge with others. Each year I dig a little deeper into the file as I prepare my lessons on the FSA.

To give students an immersive experience into “the file" I took to introducing cultural references from the Dust Bowl era. While showing a selection of images I might read from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or play Woody Guthrie as the students arrived into the classroom. It was with great delight that I discovered I do need not look any further for cultural references than the FSA file.

Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin were ethnographers inspired by the work of Alan Lomax; during the summers of 1940 and 1941 the pair toured migrant labour camps in California to document the oral traditions of the migrant farmers. This expedition was incredibly fruitful, recording songs and stories as told and performed by the workers who were blown off their land and eventually landed in California particularly the San Joaquin Valley. Todd had studied English literature and he had a particular interest in the Elizabethan Ballad. His background helped him to see the migrant labour songs as a form of personal journalism. To him the oral tradition was simply how the migrant workers had recorded their experiences during this incredible and horrific time in American history.

Together the immense photographic collection and the Todd/Sonkin recordings give students of photojournalism a wonderful starting point for multi-media production and experiential journalism. The history of how the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration used government resources to rehabilitate the landless migrants that had suffered so much loss as they made their way to find a new life in sunny California.

I have created this video presentation as an experiential history project. It can serve students both as an introduction to the work of the FSA and as an introduction to video production techniques.

Note: FSA material usage and copyright.

Primary Sources created by the federal government and its employees, as part of their job is not protected by copyright law. It is my belief that I am not infringing on the copyright of these materials as employees of a government-administered program produced them.