What can this photograph, taken in the late 1930s in South Carolina, tell us about Americans image, expectations, and experience of medicine?
"Public health doctor giving tenant family medicine for malaria, near Columbia, S.C."
Marion Post Wolcott, photographer. Created June, 1939.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection.
As we begin to consider that question, we must recognize that while we often think of photographs as mirrors of reality, they are not. All photographs, whether posed or spontaneous, are created artifacts, just as other primary sources are. The person who writes a letter or a diary entry decides what to include and what to leave out, sometimes consciously, but often without even thinking about it. The same holds for photographs. As historian Alan Trachtenberg (Trachtenberg, Reading American Photographs) reminds us, the photographer not only chooses when and where to take the photograph and what the focus and point of view of that photograph will be, but also uses the viewfinder to include some details and exclude others. Photographers can also shape the meanings we draw from their finished work, because (as Trachtenberg explains) they "can order the photographs themselves, arrange them in sequences, compose them in certain ways, perhaps accompanyed by a written text, to express a particular meaning. In some cases the meaning seems imposed by the text, by juxtaposed captions or narratives; in others, it seems to arise from the images themselves, from the dialogue among them, and between them and the viewers own experience." (xv)
Therefore, we should begin analyzing this photograph just as we would begin analyzing any other primary source: by asking 1) who created it, 2) why it was created, and 3) what the creator or creators meant to say with it.
Copyright © 1997, 2002 University of Pennsylvania HSS