Hansel Mieth’s Camera is a Tool for Social Justice

On this day in 1929, the photography collection Simple Life: Photographs from America was released, so we’re celebrating its photographer, Hansel Mieth! 

Johanna (nicknamed Hansel) Mieth was born in Oppelsbohm, Germany to a strict and religious family. She ran away from home at 15 with her lover and fellow photographer Otto Hagel. Together they emigrated to the US and found themselves in the midst of the Great Depression. She and Otto worked as migrant farm laborers, photographing the brutal circumstances they saw around them. 

Hansel created Simple Life: Photographs from America at this time, a collection which captured everyday Americans and their lives. Of this time in Hansel’s life, FF2 contributor Iris Dunkle says, “Hansel and Otto photographed the people they lived with, showing their struggle to find a better life and not just depicting them as static victims. Hansel took photographs of the children who worked in the fields. In one, a young boy is picking cotton, hauling a huge sack, and carrying his toy gun. She knew large stories could be told through children.”

In 1937, Hansel began working at LIFE Magazine, becoming the second woman photographer to ever join the staff. Then, during World War II, Hansel took photos of Japanese Americans who had been placed in internment camps, documenting the injustice. When she refused to appear before the Un-American Activities Committee, she was removed from LIFE Magazine

Hansel was committed to telling the truth with her photography, and to documenting stories that others tried to ignore. In the words of Iris Dunkle, “How lucky we are to still have the wisdom of her photographs to show us how, if we look deep enough, we can find the stories of those who have somehow been moved out of the frame of our historical and cultural narrative.”  

Despite backlash from the government and her own employer, she never swayed from her values as a photographer. Her photographs depicted real people in real circumstances, young and old, experiencing joy and experiencing hardship. More than anything, they showed humanity in the difficult parts of our history. 

© Julia Lasker (1/1/2022) FF2 Media


Read Iris Dunkle’s tribute to Hansel Mieth here.

Read Iris Dunkle’s recounting of Hansel Mieth’s close friend Charmian Kittredge London, as told through Hansel’s photography here.


Featured photo: LIFE Photo Collection / Google Arts & Culture

Top photo: LIFE / Google

Middle photo: LIFE Photo Collection / Google Arts & Culture

Bottom photo: LIFE Photo Collection / Google Arts & Culture

Tags: female photographers, German photographers, Great Depression, Hansel Mieth, Life Magazine, photography, Simple Life: Photographs from America, World War II

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As an associate for FF2 Media, Julia writes reviews and features for films made by women. She is currently a senior at Barnard College studying Psychology. Outside of FF2, her interests include acting, creative writing, thrift shopping, crafting, and making and eating baked goods. Julia has been at FF2 for almost 4 years, and loves the company and its mission dearly.
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