In 2012, we decided to ask one of our panelists or an additional scholar to write texts for each of our Action Speaks’ topics. This one by Anthony W. Lee accompanies the 1908 Lewis Hine Documents Child Labor. We hope that you enjoy it.
Beginning in 1908 when the National Child Labor Committee hired him, the photographer Lewis Hine crisscrossed the country in search of instances of child labor within American industry. For the next ten years he went almost everywhere—down to North Carolina, up to New England, back down to Alabama, across to Illinois, zigzagging West Virginia, Maine, Missouri, then Texas and California, and more. In one two-week trip through upstate New York in 1909, he logged over 1200 miles; between 1916 and 1917, he logged over 50,000. He ventured into almost every kind of factory—cotton, shoes, glassworks, silk, paper, wools—and nearly every kind of cannery, mine, farm, and field. Indeed, there was hardly a place in the country or kind of industry that he did not investigate.
What Hine found in every locale were the appalling lives foisted upon immigrant and working-class children. They worked from sunrise to sunset, twelve to fourteen hours a day, six days a week, every week, all year. The mills were unheated, the noise deafening, the fumes toxic, and the debris in the air suffocating. In the summers the southern factories were staggeringly hot, in the New England winters numbingly cold. In the darkness of the West Virginia coal mines, the young boys separated coal from slag and breathed in dust by the wagonload. In the North Carolina textile mills the young girls worked the spindles and spools until their fingers bled. They were paid seventy-five cents a day, sometimes less. In most parts of the country, the children were given no meals, no schooling, and no preparation for a life beyond the factory. They were sent into a backbreaking routine every day until they were simply used up and another could be hired to take their place. “I have heard their tragic stories,” Hine wrote, “watched their cramped lives and seen their fruitless struggles in the industrial game where the odds are all against them.”
Perhaps it was something about his personality. A small, quiet and unassuming man who looked more like a kindly school teacher than the muckraker that he was, Hine seemed to have a way with children. Amidst the clamor of the factories, Hine engaged the children and temporarily gained their trust. He often learned their names and ages, the work they did, the homes they came from, the families they helped to support. He wrote all these down, often jotting notes surreptitiously in his pocket while keeping on the lookout for foremen and factory owners. The children collaborated with him to make portraits, in which they momentarily suspended their work in front of the machines and stood patiently while Hine maneuvered his gigantic camera into place and took the measure of them. One imagines that, for the children, the photographs were small acts of transgression, taking time away from business of the factory to pose for a soft-spoken stranger. Sometimes he gathered them together and left the machines to run themselves (fig. 1).
Hine developed a particular style of investigative photography, in which he brought the manner associated studio portraiture into the factory. Full-faced and frontal, standing tall and unwaveringly before the lens, his sitters are full of self-possession. Partly this kind of photography was the result of Hine’s equipment. He used a big camera with a slow lens and, when the environs were dark (as they most often were), a powder flash. He could not easily take pictures of labor in action. But partly it was the result of his conviction that the children’s dignity needed expression. In this he was the exact opposite of his older and more famous contemporary, Jacob Riis, who fifteen years earlier had made photographs of the New York slums and brought the attentions of
Progressive Era Americans to how the “other half” lived, as he described it. Where Riis emphasized the dirty and squalid lives of immigrant workers, Hine showed a gravity and bearing among the children. Where Riis emphasized victimhood, Hine insisted on self-respect. Even in those photographs where his sitters look suspiciously at the photographer, as in a portrait of a young cotton mill worker in Easthampton, Massachusetts (fig. 2), we sense a brooding presence that is full of self-awareness and feistiness. What a life to waste, to squelch, to impoverish, Hine says with his picture.
Hine worked for the NCLC but was happy to distribute his photographs to anyone who was willing to aid the cause of reform and to help effect legislation to stop child labor abuse. The relentless publicity brought about by his pictures pressured Congress, in 1916, to pass the first federal child labor law in the United States. It was the first of a series of laws that continue to govern child labor today. Hine’s pictures also continue to have their effect, and it is fair to say that much of contemporary social documentary photography has its origins in his work.
© author and Action Speaks, 2012. www.actionspeaksradio.org