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Killed Negatives of The Great Depression

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During America’s Great Depression, the Information Division of the U.S. Farm Security Administration sent out an army of photographers to document the hard years, the poor and their poverty, their shattered homes and their fractured morals. Over 160,000 images were captured, but less than half made it to print.

Heading the photography program was Roy Stryker, a highly educated economist and a photographer himself. Stryker made sure that the photographers were well briefed on what was wanted from them before being sent out. When they returned with their negatives, Roy Stryker and his team of editors went through them ruthlessly. Any photograph failing to meet his high standard was physically defaced by punching holes through them, so that the discarded images could not be reused. This heavy-handed editing methodology earned Roy Stryker fair amount of infamy.

“Roy was a little bit dictatorial in his editing and he ruined quite a number of my pictures, which he stopped doing later. He used to punch a hole through a negative. Some of them were incredibly valuable,” said photographer Ben Shahn who was among those hired for the photographic mission.

“Punching of holes through negatives was barbaric to me... I’m sure that some very significant pictures have in that way been killed off, because there is no way of telling, no way, what photograph would come alive when”, said another photographer, Edwin Rosskam.

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Stryker did not explicitly state his criteria for selection or his methodology to determine which photos to be killed. It seems that a lot of images were killed because of poor photography techniques such as the failure to use a tripod and not focusing on the subject. Stryker also killed a great number of photos for being redundant. Others were censored for failing to convey the socioeconomic truth or not conforming to the social code of the time, such as showing black people looking too successful for their social class, or people suffering too badly from the recession.

Thousands of killed FSA photos have since been digitized and archived at the Library of Congress. A selection of these so-called “killed negatives” are now on display at London’s Whitechapel gallery. The exhibition will run till August 26, 2018.

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