By: Therese Mendoza
Hubert Johnson was a 1930’s American photographer who grew up around Gastonia, North Carolina. Hubert was one of the individuals interviewed for the Federal Writers Project, which was a program that hired writers to write biographies about a variety of people around America within different occupations (Biles 251). Hubert struggled to find a job that he enjoyed throughout a large portion of his life. He continued to drift from one occupation to another before finally settling on becoming a photographer – hence the title of his biography, “The Photographer.” Hubert exemplified the employee apathy common during the Great Depression that resulted from a lack of interest in particular jobs and a lack of financial stability.
Hubert Johnson was born on August 28, 1905. As a child, Hubert was always eager to begin making his own living and becoming independent from his family. He never finished school because he desired to begin working as early as possible, and neither his uncle nor grandmother pushed him to continue his education. He drifted from job to job throughout the course of his life, first working for a paper route before quitting school, then working for a newsstand and various other workplaces. He backed out of joining the Navy, worked as a sales representative for a store until it closed, then went on a road trip with some of his friends. He spent all of his money, then sent a telegram to “his guardian” asking for money and hitchhiked home (Abner 3682).
After returning home, Hubert transitioned from working for a book company to a stationary store to a printing shop before realizing that he was genuinely interested in the workings of cameras. He bought a photography studio in 1936 and still owned the studio at the time of his Federal Writers Project interview three years later (Abner 3687).
During the Great Depression, people who were lucky enough to obtain a job often found themselves dissatisfied with working conditions or given tasks. Oftentimes, employees did not take into consideration the conditions in which they set their workers, and not all jobs were able to provide to their workers an adequate amount of pay or incentives that they would intrinsically enjoy. Workers’ feelings of neglect and interest in their own personal well-being over their job contributed to a fair amount of employee apathy in 1930 America, which may have led individuals like Hubert to transition from job to job in discontent.
In “The Photographer,” Hubert “got mad and quit” after running a press in a print shop for a year (Abner 3683). He described his work at the shop as being “not much of a job – just feeding blank sheets of paper to a hand press,” indicating that he was uninterested in the job and found the tasks he was given to be tedious and mundane. His reason for boredom can be further supported by the notion that many workers during the great depression felt underrepresented and overworked. A large number of employers “during the 1930s and 1940s never adopted [responsible labor organizations] and continued to resist unionization actively in spite of the 1935 Wagner Act which promoted collective bargaining” (Rogers 250). Employers did not give employees an opportunity to voice their concerns, and as a result, workers did not feel as if they or their efforts mattered.
Hubert’s eagerness to leave the print shop also indicates that he cared more for his personal happiness and health than working for his job. Factors that “contributed to the less-than satisfactory productivity in the factory” included “batch processing” and a “fear that [the workers’] jobs would be eliminated once their work became exhausted” (Rhee and Sigler 318). Hubert did not try to put extra effort into completing his daily printing tasks because he likely felt no attachment to the shop or to what he was doing.
Pictured above is a large crowd of unemployed Americans in the 1930's. Finding a job was difficult during these times and many people were unable to support themselves with basic needs such as food and shelter. Such conditions pushed people to take whatever job they could find, whether or not they preferred it.
Although it seems as if Hubert had an easier time finding a job since he was able to drift between so many different workplaces, many of the jobs he took may not have paid enough to motivate him to remain there. Unfortunately for Hubert, “industrial diversity, which normally provides increased alternatives for people thrown out of work, inhibited essential wage adjustments in the face of the noise and confusion in those remarkable early Depression years” (Simon and Nardinelli 397). Although the variety of jobs available ought to have been a benefit, during periods of economic turmoil, it kept wages from being raised to an amount that people could live off of properly. Hubert exemplified this notion when he turned down a job that offered “$25 per week” because “I did not think I could live on that” (Abner 3682).
In the end, Hubert turned to photography not because he was paid well but because he intrinsically enjoyed it. In a magazine article published in 1938, the photography industry was coined a type of “hobby industry,” since people could “turn to it to forget their troubles and to find surcease from the cares and disappointments of business” (Murphy 8).
Many qualified individuals were unable to find jobs due to the extremely low amount of job offerings during the Great Depression. Rather than stores and industries looking for workers, individuals were marketing themselves to the employment world.
THE FEDERAL WRITERS’ PROJECT
The Federal Writers’ Project was formed to give “work relief for approximately ten thousand people during its seven-year existence” (Biles 251). Writers were given the task of writing out the life story of individuals from different workplaces in different areas, be it someone they knew or someone completely random. The life stories give readers a snapshot of what life was like during the early 1900’s in America.
Interviewers, however, may have had biases that affected the way they relayed each interviewee’s story, and interviewees may not have given their interviewers a fully accurate portrayal of who they were – they may have covered up embarrassing memories or made themselves seem better than they were. Nonetheless, the life stories of the Federal Writers Project exist not for an accurate representation of history during that time period, but as a way for us to see general trends during that time period that give us an indication what life was like during the Great Depression.
(Above is a screenshot of the original life story written by Abner.) "The Photographer", Hubert's story, is entirely in quotes. This may indicate that Hubert's interviewer simply recorded Hubert's summary of his life story, without asking for any elaboration on a particular subject or making his own inferences on Hubert's emotions.
Abner, John (interviewer): The Photographer, Folder 278 in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.
Biles, Roger. “Portrait of America: A Cultural History of the Federal Writers’ Project.” North Carolina Historical Review, vol. 81, no. 2, 2004, pp. 251-252. < http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/198455321?accountid=14244>
Murphy, John Allen. “Why Hobby Industries Outride Depressions.” Barron's, vol. 18, no. 42, 1938, pp. 8. < http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/350263033?accountid=14244>
Rhee, Kenneth S. and Tracy Honeycutt Sigler. “Science Versus Humankind: The Yin and Yang of Motivation Theory.” International Journal of Organization Theory and Behavior, vol. 8, no. 3, 2005, pp. 313-342.
Rogers, Michael D. and Alan R. Griswold. “Human Resource Management in TVA: Challenge For the Future.” Southern Review of Public Administration, vol. 8, no. 2, 1984, pp. 249-259.
Simon, Curtis J. and Clark Nardinelli. “Does Industrial Diversity Always Reduce Unemployment? Evidence From the Great Depression and After.” Economic Inquiry, vol. 30, no. 2, 1992, pp. 384-397.
(Cover photo) “Garment factory in Jersey Homesteads.” Garment Industry, Library of Congress, 1936, http://immigrationtounitedstates.org/512-garment-industry.html.
Pictured are American workers in a garment factory in the 1930’s. Employers were not often concerned about what conditions their employees labored under.
(First picture) “Unemployed Workers in the Great Depression.” Libcom.org, Libcom.org, https://libcom.org/history/1930-1939-unemployed-workers-movement.
(Second picture) “Desperate Americans stand in soup kitchen lines and look for work.” SHTFplan.com, SHTFplan.com, circa 1929, http://www.shtfplan.com/headline-news/the-shocking-reality-this-chart-shows-just-how-bad-unemployment-is-today-compared-to-the-great-depression_10032015.