Bourke-White’s 1936 and 1937 trips to the rural U.S. South with writer Erskine Caldwell definitively turned her camera’s eye away from a focus on machinery and buildings and towards more human subjects. Together, she and Caldwell published a photo essay entitled You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), one of many such documentary collaborations between photographers and writers in the U.S. during the Depression years. The sharecropper couple on the left is one of Bourke-White’s best-known images from this work.
Many of the photographs she took of impoverished sharecroppers, black workers, and convicts on the chain gang found echoes in her South African work a few years later. In her autobiography, Bourke-White claimed that when Black South Africans saw this book, they “believed I would be trying to get to the truth of a question, and they trusted me.”
Meanwhile, in South Africa the 1930s saw the discovery of the so-called “poor white problem,” as many rural Afrikaners lost their land and fell into desperate poverty. The Carnegie Commission produced a five-volume study of this phenomenon, both documenting and defining the problem. Afrikaner Nationalism made the uplift of these “poor whites”, often at the expense of Blacks, one of its central missions. The South African farm couple photographed by Bourke-White in 1950 that appears on the left–a foreman and his wife, rather than a sharecropper–exuded far more confidence than the impoverished U.S. sharecroppers Bourke-White had encountered in Georgia in the 1930s.
I could find no channels through which to meet native Africans and the `coloreds’….Suddenly a native African woman came up behind me and spoke my name. She had recognized me from a newspaper picture. She pulled from her blouse a well-worn copy, obviously widely circulated, of You Have Seen Their Faces. Through this unexpected contact, I was able to complete my story. –From Bourke-White’s autobiography, Portrait of Myself (1963).