There’s an archive in the Library of Congress housing hundreds of thousands of Farm Security Administration photos dating to the Great Depression. These stark pictures capture the harsh realities of the mid-’30s – the “Migrant Mother” photo, centered on Florence Owens Thompsons’ worry-worn face, is one of the best known images of the era.
They’re stored in filing cabinets with a hundred or so pictures in each one, and they’re catalogued by geographic location and seemingly random categories such as “corn” or “barbershops.” The photos themselves are attached to cardboard and have to be professionally re-shelved by Library of Congress staff. They’re American artifacts, no doubt, and Chapel Hill High School seniors Caroline Murphy and Sydney Dye knew it when they donned white gloves (also required by the Library of Congress) and explored the storied archive.
“It takes academic research to the next level,” says Caroline. “There is no project that will motivate you so much as to take a trip to Washington, D.C., and check out the Library of Congress.”
By the time they saw these images in person, however, Caroline and Sydney had been working with them for nine months. The friends, 11th-graders at the time, were prepping a documentary for the 2016 National History Day Contest. In June their video, “Introducing Americans to America,” won Caroline and Sydney first place in the senior group documentary category. Separately, their documentary will be screened at the AMC Empire 25 on Times Square this October as part of the All American High School Film Festival.
“Introducing Americans to America” presented the FSA photos in context, certainly, but also went one step beyond: Caroline and Sydney levelly address the debate as to whether or not these government-sponsored photos qualify as propaganda.
It’s one of the reasons they won.
“In our documentary we don’t give a definitive answer,” says Sydney. She and Caroline would rather the viewers make up their own minds. The judges liked this, and said so in their feedback.
The pair has several years’ experience participating in National History Day, which is open to students in grades 6-12. Sydney first entered the competition in the seventh grade as part of a class project, and she and Caroline teamed up on one in the eighth grade. It became an annual thing.
For the 2016 competition, they knew they wanted to do a documentary on the Great Depression or World War II era – there’s an abundance of archival video and photography from those years, after all. Yet as they did their initial research, they kept coming across images accompanying the text. People in that era wouldn’t just be walking around, taking pictures of everything, they reasoned, so where are all these photos coming from?
They didn’t realize there were a quarter of a million of them, or that a small group of photographers had been sent out by the government to document America. Soon, the photos themselves were Caroline and Sydney’s focus.
“It was slightly ironic that we were creating a documentary about a documentary photography project,” Sydney admits.
Participating in National History Day has helped these students with their research skills, and they’d like to continue down this rabbit hole even after high school. Duke University tops both their lists: it’s close to home, and it has the Center for Documentary Studies. Sydney, in particular, wants to go into film producing, though both certainly want to study history at the college level. What started as a middle school project has become much more.
“Both of our perspectives on documentaries themselves have changed,” Sydney says. “There is a common perception that documentaries are really dull and boring and through our time researching and our time creating these documentaries we have grown to appreciate the art form.”