On Importance


In her widely influential collection of essays, On Photography, Susan Sontag writes:

To photograph is to confer importance. There is probably no subject that cannot be beautified; moreover, there is no way to suppress the tendency inherent in all photographs to accord value to their subjects (28).

Whatever the FSA’s political motives, it is hard to deny that Roy Stryker’s endeavor to photograph rural American poverty during the Great Depression was a way to confer importance to large, yet extremely marginalized and vulnerable population. But the FSA photographs did not confer importance equally to all communities and identities of rural Americans.

In discussing about the relationship between photography and travel, Sontag writes, “A way of certifying experiences, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it – by limiting the experience to search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir” (9). Though FSA photographers were required to travel widely, it is not logical to argue their photographs were souvenirs because their use of the camera as a tool was not anxiety driven, as Sontag goes on to say about tourists. It is, however, valuable to think about how the FSA photographers “converted experience into image,” how this experience was limited, and what they were “refusing” of the experience.


[Untitled photo, possibly related to: Farm boy, Guilford County, North Carolina]

Looking through the killed negatives, as well as the FSA collection more broadly, it is immediately clear that images with people overwhelmingly featured white people.

In 1937, Stryker wrote to Lange as she was traveling to the South: “Regarding the tenancy pictures, I would suggest you take both black and white, but place the emphasis on white tenants, since we know that these will receive much wider use” (qtd. in Finnegan 43). Stryker is conscious of what media contemporary media outlets were interested in publishing – his audience drives his photographer’s content. Unfortunately, media outlets today have not changed and continue to disproportionally highlight and discuss white bodies. 

In some killed negatives, Stryker’s hole punching seems randomly placed, almost haphazard. In other photos, such as the one above featuring a black farm boy from North Carolina, it seems more intentional. The farm boy, who remains unnamed, has his arm up on a horse, but his face fully turned towards the camera. Styker has punched through almost exactly where is heart would be, on the left side of the chest. By discussing this image along side Stryker’s statement to Lange, I do not mean to imply that Stryker “killed” this image because the boy was black. In fact, the image’s parenthetically caption implies that there is at least one other image, likely also a portrait, featuring this farm hand. My intention is simply to call attention to a couple of spaces in which race arises, both in the FSA archive, as well as in written primary and secondary source literature. 

Clearly, Stryker attempted to control who and what was photographed, based on what he believed was important, often to the exclusion of African American experiences. The violent way in which he killed the negatives, might be read at an attempt to continue to control the collection, to ensure all the  all of the images it contains are valuable to the project. But, as Sontag writes, “To photograph is to confer importance” (28). The importance is not in the photograph, but in the act of photographing. John Vachon conferred importance to this farm boy in taking his picture. While Stryker can attempt to control the image produce, he cannot reduce the importance conferred in the initial act of taking the photograph, not even with his hole puncher. 




Finnegan, Cara A. Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2003.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 1973.


Vachon, John, photographer. [Untitled photo, possibly related to: Farm boy, Guilford County, North Carolina]. [Apr, 1938] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <https://www.loc.gov/item/fsa1997003088/PP>.