From 1935-1943, President Franklin Roosevelt looked to the U.S. Farm Security Administration, under the direction of Roy Stryker, to photograph people in need across the country in order to help sell his New Deal programs to the public.
Ben Shahn was one of the first photographers Styker hired. Shahn worked for a part of the project called Special Skills, and also helped create posters and other graphic arts.
“It was a really tough time,” remembered Shahn years later, “and when this thing came along and this idea that I must wander around the country a bit for three months. . . I just nearly jumped out of my skin with joy. And not only that, they were going to give me a salary too! I just couldn’t believe it.”
In October 1935 Shahn and his wife Bernarda started out on the first trip in a Model A Ford. Heading for West Virginia, he took photographs in Monongalia County before arriving in Logan County. The couple spent a Sunday and Monday in Omar and also visited Freeze Fork before moving on through Williamson to Kentucky and Tennessee, and then into the deep South.
“I did a series of photographs on a Saturday afternoon in a small town in Tennessee, I believe, of a medicine man. He had a little dummy, ventriloquist dummy, and he had a Negro to help him and so on. It was Saturday. I don’t think there were ten cars in the square, they were all mule drawn carts that had come there. This was 1935; it was incredible you see. The same was true of a lot of areas we covered. You’d have that feeling then of being way far back; but tragically enough, just about a month ago we took a train from Washington to Cincinnati. As I went throughout West Virginia, it hadn’t changed. It just made me sick to see the same darn thing.
“The other thing that startled me; when I was down in the mine country, I think it was Kentucky, there was some local strike taking place and I thought I want to cover that. It was being picketed and I thought, ‘Now how do you get into a conversation with a union picket? You offer him a union made cigarette.’ So I bought a pack of Raleighs and I offered him a cigarette and he says, ‘No, I don’t smoke that awful stuff.’ In stronger language than that. He says, ‘Here, I’ve been in the union for thirty years and I won’t smoke that,’ and he offered me a non-union cigarette. This to me is startling you know.
“As was the fact that John L. Lewis, who was a kind of a God of theirs at that time, and you didn’t dare say a word against him…if you had a copy of The Nation with you, I think they’d run you out of town. There was this incomprehensible conflict there you know.
“I got into homes. I stayed with some families. I knew how to do that pretty well, and got to know them, and we still remember their names.”