After his graduation from Columbia University, Rothstein’s former professor Roy Stryker, the head of the Photo Unit for the Resettlement Administration (which would later become the Farm Security Administration), made Rothstein the first staff photographer at the Resettlement Administration.

Rothstein spent the next five years on the road. He took over 80,000 photographs, creating many iconic images of rural and small-town America during the Great Depression (1935-1940). He later wrote that he was motivated because documentary photography had “the power to move men’s minds,” He explained, “The aim is to move people to action, to change or prevent a situation because it may be wrong or damaging, and to support and encourage people.”