Social Realities



Social realism emerged as an international movement for the artists who wanted to raise concerns and draw attention to the plight of the poor and the middle class in various social constructions. The social realists were critical of the social establishment of the society and the structures that defined them. The characteristics of these artistic works varied from one nation to another depending on the circumstances. However, the images were consistent in depicting the challenges that were manifest in each social construction. The Lange’s 1936, Migrant Mother, Bandit’s Roost, and Barge Haulers on the Volga are some of the images that depicted social realities in various societies.

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Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange

The image is one of the works of Dorothea Lange’s artistic works. The portrait depicts a mother and her children seated on a particular establishment. The mother seems to be in a state of desperation and hunger. The children look tired and overwhelmed by their condition. As a consequence, the children try to find consolation by leaning on their mother. The image of the ‘migrant mother’ is a depiction of Florence Thompson and her children in Nipomo, California. In February 1937 Lange was on a mission taking photographs of migratory farm labor in California. The resettlement administration was a major component during that era. In 1930s America was sliding into the Great Depression (Nardo, 2011). There was devastation everywhere. Many people were condemned to the periphery due to the harsh economic conditions. A collective majority of the societies in America were in peril. The crops had been destroyed by the rains. There was nothing to cultivate or pick. The devastation caused by the Great Depression was evident everywhere (Nardo, 2011).

Dorothea Lange provided an account of the circumstances that led to the taking of the photo. Lange intimated that she was contracted as a photographer for the Resettlement Administration. She was tasked with the responsibility of providing assistance to the low-income families and helping them relocate. While in Nipomo, California, she encountered a family confined in a tent (Wells, 2004). The woman only named Florence Thompson was devastated, seemed helpless and did not have much to lean on due to poverty. Everything had been destroyed by the rain, and the fields remained bare. Lange approached the woman, sitting in a tent with her children. When Lange requested to photograph them, the migrant mother gave consent (Wells, 2004). The woman believed that such images would be critical in attracting assistance from other people.

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The woman narrated her story based on the prevailing circumstances. She submitted that the trail of devastation left by the rain condemned them to the periphery. The migrant mother noted that they survived on the birds killed by her children and frozen vegetables. Moreover, Florence noted that she had sold some of the car tires to purchase food for her children. To this extent, the portrait of the woman speaks to the social struggles and pain that was manifest in some of America’s society during the Great Depression (Nardo, 2011).

Lange’s construction and framing of the image influence people’s reception of the person to a greater extent. The woman is seated in a tent with her children with evidence of poverty and struggles painted all over. The people are forced to sympathize with her due to her situation and overriding pain and suffering. The image influence people’s opinion positively. For example, the woman is in her condition due to the circumstances that include economic depression, the devastation caused by the floods, lack of food and harsh living conditions. The people are forced to sympathize with her because of her situation and the extent of hardships. The image of the ‘Migrant Mother’ is a true reflection of what manifested in most societies in the past. The image tells the story of the struggles of many families, children and the inability of the authorities to effectively respond to the needs and demands of the people (Nardo, 2011).

Bandit’s Roost by Jacob Riis

The portrait shows individuals putting on caps and standing along a pathway. Consequently, one of the individuals carries a long stick and exhibits a posture suggesting that he is ready for an encounter. The image also shows a dilapidated street with waste materials strategically positioned in bins (Riis, 2012. The people pictured in the image seem to be members of a gang controlling the area and the street.

The Bandit’s Roost by Jacob Riis’ provides a broad perspective over which several issues can be established. The image is a lower east side street gang manning a street in New York. During the 19th century, New York City was a home to many immigrants. When the immigrants came to the city, they did not find the streets paved with silver and gold, but found a dilapidated environment with harsh living conditions being the order of the day. The society turned a blind eye to the social challenges that were manifest in that establishment. However, it took the courage of reporters such as Jacob Riis to go to New York and tell the story of the suffering population (Riis, 2012). The reporters provided a true state and reflection of the city by venturing into the most ominous establishments. Overcrowding, crime, violent tendencies, gangs and poor living conditions were common.

Many societies are often confronted with many challenges, some of which threaten the foundation of their establishment. Poor living conditions, crime, and violence are some of the tendencies synonymous with such ominous societies (Riis, 2012). Most of these societies are usually forgotten by policy makers and authorities whose mandate is to come up with programs aimed at providing assistance to the people. While the society turns a blind eye on the plight of the poverty-stricken neighborhoods, the suffering continues unabated.

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Jacob Riis played a critical role in highlighting the plight of the people in New York and the living conditions. The criminal gangs, insecurity, violence and dilapidated establishments were major components that informed Riis’ works. The photograph of ‘Bandit’s Roost’ formed a major component of dealing with the challenges manifest in New York. For example, the images provided by John Riis helped in bringing the Tenement Act of 1901 (Pascal, 2005). This Act helped in improving the living conditions of the poor people. Jacob Riis’ works epitomize social realism to a greater extent. The images are designed to draw the attention of the people to the plight and challenges affecting other societies (Pascal, 2005). Ideally, these images are designed to bring change and ensure the well-being of the people. Social realists wanted to bring a balance in the society by telling the story of the poverty-stricken households. Essentially, the artistic works were meant to expose the challenges of the people as a consequence of ensuring assistance.

The Riis’ construction and framing of the portrait influence people’s reception of the people in the images in a negative way. For example, the image is a depiction of a criminal gang manning a street in a particular neighbourhood. The assumption is that these people criminals perpetuate violent and criminal tendencies in that jurisdiction. Anybody looking at the image would think of the people in the photo as individuals who threaten the fabric of the society through their criminal behaviors.

Barge Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin

The image shows a group of people trying to pull a large boat. The painting depicts a hot weather with people working under adverse conditions. There is a large water body that appears to be a river (Strachan & Bolton, 2010). The terrain is rugged, the shore is deserted and only the men pulling the boat can be spotted. The painting shows the men are almost collapsing forward as a result of exhaustion.

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Repin is the architect of the Barge Haulers on the Volga. The artistic work is a depiction of the hardship and suffering men went through as they worked through the difficult conditions. The painting can be analyzed from two perspectives. First, the painting is a celebration of men’s fortitude and dignity. Although they are confronted with hardships and severe working conditions, they strive to meet their obligations as appropriate. Second, it is a condemnation of the people who perpetrated such inhumane acts.

Even though the individuals are projected as accepting and stoic, they are in a state of defeat and surrender. The image portrays the social challenges that most people faced in some of the Russian societies (Borrero, 2004). Forced and hard labor was the norm. The artist’s construction and framing of the image influence the reception of the people in a negative way. The people in the image are distressed and subdued due to hard labor (Strachan & Bolton, 2010). The hardships, forced labor, and harsh working conditions give a negative orientation of the image.


The Lange’s 1936, Migrant Mother, Bandit’s Roost, and Barge Haulers on the Volga are some of the images that depicted social realities in various societies. The images and painting indicate the social challenges that were manifest in some societies in the traditional days. Crime, violence, overcrowding, hard labor and poverty are some of the projections of the images. The artistic works discussed in this paper define and epitomize social realism.

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Did you like this sample?
  1. Borrero, M. (2004). Russia. New York: Infobase Pub.
  2. Nardo, D. (2011). Migrant Mother: How a photograph defined the Great Depression. Mankato, MN: Compass Point Books.
  3. Riis, J. (2012). How the Other Half Lives. Dover Publications.
  4. Pascal, J. B. (2005). Jacob Riis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  5. Strachan, E., & Bolton, R. (2010). Views of Russia and Russian works on paper. London: Sphinx Books.
  6. Wells, L. (2004). Photography: A Critical Introduction. Psychology Press.
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