During the Great Depression, the Farm Security Administration dispatched photographers across the United States to document poverty in America. The images they captured are some of the most iconic photos in history.
But those images dominate only because Wolcott’s and Shahn’s bosses wanted them to. Roy Stryker, the FSA photo editor in Washington, intended the photos to reinforce New Deal ideals and persuade Americans that the government needed their tax dollars to relieve the suffering of the poor.
But the West Virginia that Wolcott and Shahn witnessed was far deeper and more rounded than the selected images suggest. The photographers didn’t put their cameras down when poverty and suffering weren’t manifest. The two documented communities that brim with life, celebration, pride, and hard work.
The images rejected in Washington were, thankfully, never discarded. Tens of thousands of them survive, but for most of the 20th century it was necessary to travel to the Library of Congress to see them. In 2010 the library restarted the process of scanning the project’s 175,000 black-and-white negatives. The public can now browse the lion’s share of the collection with just a few mouse clicks. Here are a few of the many that speak to a different West Virginia from the one popularized by the FSA.
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