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Recognizing visual symbols

Mast Irham / EPA

Left - Survivors waiting for a medical checkup by the Indonesian Red Cross at Bulasat Village, South Pagai Island, part of Mentawai islands, Indonesia, Nov. 1, 2010. Rescue workers were trying to reach remote areas in the tsunami-ravaged Mentawai islands as the bad weather eased, officials said. The confirmed death toll from the tidal wave and magnitude-7.7 earthquake stands at 431, down from a previous estimate of 449, while 88 people were listed as missing, said Agus Prayitno from the Regional Disaster Management Agency in West Sumatra‘s capital Padang. More than 400 people are reported injured.

An interesting thing happened yesterday during “The Week in Pictures” edit. Carissa Ray, Meredith Birkett and I were doing the final edit when Mast Irham’s picture came on the screen. Almost in unison the three of us said, “Lange”. I quickly yelled, “Jinx!” and punched both of them in the arm, just kidding.

In that shared moment of recognition the three of us were referring to Dorothea Lange’s famous “Migrant Mother” photograph. Lange’s picture of Florence Thompson and her children, who were living in a migrant worker camp and existing on frozen, rotting field vegetables and birds that the children could kill, became an iconic image that represents the Great Depression.


Icons have a funny way of becoming templates for later work. It’s not that people are copying each other’s work. I think it has something to do with how a culture comes to share recognizable symbols. It’s a visual short-hand that helps people communicate efficiently. Lange’s picture has become that, at least for photographers.

Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about Dorothea’s picture, and I’ve wondered about the moment when she saw Florence and her kids in that California field. Lange must have recognized something iconic. I’ve come to believe that her photograph refers back to a deeply rooted cultural icon. Think of all the “Madonna and Child” religious paintings that have been created over the centuries. I’ve come to see those images as the iconic source material for Dorothea Lange’s photograph, and by extension Mast Irham’s recent picture.

What do all three images communicate to you?

Click here to look for icons and cultural symbols in this week's episide of "The Week in Pictures".