Famous 'Migrant Mother' Photograph Evidently Has a Climate-Related Backstory

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Mar. 14 2022, Published 12:57 p.m. ET

Whether you're a history buff or if you simply admire old photography, you're most likely somewhat familiar with the iconic "Migrant Mother" photo, which is considered to be within "the top 10 photographs" of all time. It's black and white, and features a woman looking off to the side with two children — who are presumably her kids — nestling their heads on her shoulders, and a baby in her lap.

And evidently, the famous photo has a climate-related backstory to it.

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"I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two," Lange told Popular Photography in Feb. 1960, as per Library of Congress.

Lange continued:

"She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean- to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it."

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How is the "Migrant Mother" photo related to climate and extreme weather?

In March 1936, photographer Dorthea Lange was working for the Farm Security Administration, shooting photos of everyday Americans. At the time, the U.S. economy was being ravaged by the Great Depression, per AccuWeather, and farmers in the Midwest were facing the infamous Dust Bowl.

One day, Lange met migrant worker, Florence Owens Thompson, at a pea-pickers camp in Nipomo, Calif. Thompson was having car trouble while heading from Oklahoma to California with her seven kids.

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The Thompsons were hungry, very poor, and had nowhere to live in these uncertain times. And for many decades, Thompson's identity in the photo remained anonymous.

“I always considered my mom very, very strong,” Norma Rydlewski, who was the baby in the photo, said in a 1992 interview, per AccuWeather. “Looking at her in the pictures, a lot of times she didn’t look like a beautiful woman, but she really was. We always thought of her as a very beautiful lady…. [And] she was a very strong lady."

After supporting her family with years of hard physical labor, Thompson saved up, moved her family to a Modesto trailer park, married, and had more kids. And while the story reflects on the crumbling U.S. economy, it also has a major connection to the vicious drought that affected so many families for years.

Eventually, Thompson got sick and passed away at the age of 80, though her legacy lives on through that iconic photograph, and through her story. Watch the video for more on the story.

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Was the Dust Bowl brought on by climate change?

The Dust Bowl was triggered by a few different things — in addition to the relentless economic recession that was affecting most of the U.S., it was also caused by continuously rising temperatures, a nasty drought, and harmful agricultural practices which came with the commercialization of the agriculture industry.

If you're interested in reading more on it, we highly recommend reading banned book Grapes of Wrath.

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Climate migration has been ongoing since the 1930s, and will continue to worsen as the climate crisis rages on — hopefully history won't continue to repeat itself.

Green Matters’ new book, Green Living, is the perfect guide to living an eco-friendly lifestyle for people at every stage of the process. You can order Green Living here.

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