Curtis writes about the motives and to some extent the methods of some of the FSA photographers, most notably, Evans and Lee for their for work done in documenting the situations of poverty amongst black and white communities during the 30s in America.
One of Curtis’s arguments is that the images are often staged and planned rather than being candid, therefore shifting to some extent the agenda of the projects being photographed (being manipulated).
In asking, were the subjects being exploited? one might also ask if the public were being exploited as in the end the work was being made for viewing by a class that was not involved as a subject for the photography. The subjects of the images, although being asked to pose and collaborate must have assumed that their collaboration was going to be helpful to themselves in terms of improving their living standard and material prosperity. This was unarguably necessary as the conditions of the South West in these times was undoubtably dreadful for all concerned.
Some fifty years earlier we are seeing Jacob Riis organising his photo (out of necessity) for the audiences of urban America to see how low some of the people of the city are living. This organising of the image, when working with a view or large format camera would seem inevitable based on the technical necessity of having a slow exposure rate. What other choice was there?
However, during the FSA project period of the middle to late thirties the 35mm Leica was already being used by some and so there was less imperative one assumes to stage the shots. Although the government would allow any manipulation or processing of the photos, this would not inhibit the photographer from setting up the best shot possible for greater ‘dramaturgy’.
However, from my point of view I fail to see that Curtis’s arguments are substantially convincing. There is abject poverty in a lot of these images and if the photographer removed the wife or the husband occasionally or some of the children to improve the publics response, in a sense this could be seen as a skilful means towards helping these people with what seemed to be, an inconsolable dilemma.