The Photos That Ended Child Labor in the US: See the “Social Photography” of Lewis Hine (1911)

The aver­age per­son believes implic­it­ly that the pho­to­graph can­not fal­si­fy. Of course, you and I know that this unbound­ed faith in the integri­ty of the pho­to­graph is often rude­ly shak­en, for, while pho­tographs may not lie, liars may pho­to­graph.  —Lewis Wick­es Hine, “Social Pho­tog­ra­phy: How the Cam­era May Help in the Social Uplift” (1909)

Long before Bran­don Stanton’s wild­ly pop­u­lar Humans of New York project tapped into the public’s capac­i­ty for com­pas­sion by com­bin­ing pho­tos of his sub­jects with some telling nar­ra­tive about their lives, edu­ca­tor and soci­ol­o­gist Lewis Wick­es Hine was using his cam­era as a tool to pres­sure the pub­lic into demand­ing an end to child labor in the Unit­ed States.

In a time when the US Fed­er­al Cen­sus report­ed that one in five chil­dren under the age of 16over 1.75 mil­lionwas gain­ful­ly employed, Hines tra­versed the coun­try under the aus­pices of the Nation­al Child Labor Com­mit­tee, gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion and mak­ing por­traits of the under­age work­ers.

His images, made between 1911 and 1916, intro­duced view­ers to young boys break­ing up coal in Penn­syl­va­nia mines, tiny Louisiana oys­ter shuck­ers and Maine sar­dine cut­ters, child pick­ers in Ken­tucky tobac­co fields and Mass­a­chu­setts cran­ber­ry bogs, and news­boys in a num­ber of cities.

Their employ­ers active­ly recruit­ed kids from poor fam­i­lies, wager­ing that they would per­form repet­i­tive, often dan­ger­ous tasks for a pit­tance, with lit­tle chance of union­iz­ing.

Hine was a scrupu­lous doc­u­men­tar­i­an, label­ing each pho­to with cru­cial infor­ma­tion gleaned from con­ver­sa­tions with the child pic­tured there­in: name, age, loca­tion, occu­pa­tion, wages, andhor­rif­i­cal­lyany work­place injuries.

In an essay in the anthol­o­gy Major Prob­lems in the Gild­ed Age and the Pro­gres­sive Era, his­to­ri­an Robert West­brook lauds Hines’ way of inter­act­ing with his sub­jects with “deco­rum and tact,” accord­ing them a dig­ni­ty that few of the period’s “con­de­scend­ing” mid­dle-class reform­ers did.

As the Vox Dark­room seg­ment, above, explains, Hine’s for­mal com­po­si­tions lent addi­tion­al pow­er to his images of smudged child work­ers pos­ing in their places of employ­ment. Shal­low depth of field to ensure that the viewer’s eyes would not become absorbed in the back­ground, but rather engage with those of his sub­ject.

But it was the accom­pa­ny­ing nar­ra­tives, which he referred to var­i­ous­ly as “pic­ture sto­ries” or “pho­to-inter­pre­ta­tions,” that he cred­it­ed with real­ly get­ting through to the hearts and minds of an indif­fer­ent pub­lic.

The text pre­vent­ed view­ers from eas­i­ly brush­ing the chil­dren off as anony­mous, scruffy urchins.

Here for instance is “Manuel, the young shrimp-pick­er, five years old, and a moun­tain of child-labor oys­ter shells behind him. He worked last year. Under­stands not a word of Eng­lish. Dun­bar, Lopez, Dukate Com­pa­ny. Loca­tion: Biloxi, Mis­sis­sip­pi.”

“Lau­ra Pet­ty, a 6 year old berry pick­er on Jenk­ins farm, Rock Creek near Bal­ti­more, Md. ‘I’m just begin­nin.’ Picked two box­es yes­ter­day. (2 cents a box).”

“Ange­lo Ross, 142 Pana­ma Street, Hughestown Bor­ough, a young­ster who has been work­ing in Break­er #9 Penn­syl­va­nia Co. for four months, said he was 13 years old, but very doubt­ful. He has a broth­er, Tony, prob­a­bly under 14 work­ing. Loca­tion: Pittston, Penn­syl­va­nia.”

Hine cor­rect­ly fig­ured that the com­bi­na­tion of pho­to and bio­graph­i­cal infor­ma­tion was a “lever for the social uplift.”

Once the pic­tures were pub­lished in Pro­gres­sive mag­a­zines, state leg­is­la­tures came under immense pres­sure to impose min­i­mum age require­ments in the work­place, effec­tive­ly end­ing child labor, and return­ing many for­mer work­ers to school.

View the entire col­lec­tion of Lewis Hine’s Nation­al Child Labor Com­mit­tee pho­tos here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

How Dorothea Lange Shot, Migrant Moth­er, Per­haps the Most Icon­ic Pho­to in Amer­i­can His­to­ry

Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Clem Albers & Fran­cis Stewart’s Cen­sored Pho­tographs of a WWII Japan­ese Intern­ment Camp

Meet Ger­da Taro, the First Female Pho­to­jour­nal­ist to Die on the Front Lines

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join her in NYC this March, when her com­pa­ny, The­ater of the Apes, presents the world pre­miere of Tony Award win­ner Greg Kotis’ new low-bud­get, gui­tar-dri­ven musi­cal, I AM NOBODY.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (4)
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  • Honey Bees says:

    They looked hap­pi­er than fat chil­dren play­ing on a cell phone and the inter­net

  • Severe says:

    Child labor was espe­cial­ly abol­ished because the mate­r­i­al con­di­tions were met to end it : fam­i­ly and/or com­mu­ni­ties with enough resources to feed them and keep them at school until a cer­tain age.
    To pres­sure leg­is­la­tors and give one­self a shoot a good con­scious was easy. To act and solve its mate­r­i­al con­di­tions was some­thing else.

  • Callum Tern says:

    You sound like some­one that knows absolute­ly no fat chil­dren. Five-years-old and six-years-old, and you think they look HAPPIER than a child that spends their days doing what­ev­er they liked? You’re out of touch from real­i­ty.

  • Patrick says:

    How is being a fat child on a cell phone worse than work­ing in a coal mine, where you’re forced to work for long hours every sin­gle day? You don’t have the time or ener­gy to get edu­cat­ed, your shoul­ders begin to round from crouch­ing all day, you breathe in bad air, and you’re con­stant­ly cough­ing from all the dust you breathed in. You are tru­ly stu­pid if you think doing what­ev­er you like is worse than doing forced labor because your par­ents can­not afford to let you not work.

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