An Important Step in the Fight of Child Labor

Until the invention of cameras, the imagination of major events like war was limited to only what people heard and imagined. Photography became a powerful tool to capture and record social injustice and labor reform, changing the way we view things and what we think we know. This enhanced public awareness and exposed the true horror in what was happening across the nation. When photos of child labor and conditions they were forced to work in got released, it shocked the nation. As a result, countless people pushed for reform showing empathy for the child laborers. Lewis Wickes Hine, born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin was an American sociological photographer, who used his photographs as a way to express the reality about issues like immigration and child labor.

As a young child hine had also worked as a child labor and was determined to change his lifestyle. After Hines graduated from the University of Chicago in 1901, he soon became a teacher himself, studying as a student of John Dewey and Ella Flagg (theculturetrip). Hines’ first experience in photography came when he became a nature study geography educator and as the school’s photographer as a side job. As a photographer, Hine would take photos of social and academic parts of school, but he quickly realized the power he had in exposing the emotions and reality in a way to educate the public.

This left an immense imprint on how he expressed his social concerns. In 1905, Lewis Hines began his first documentary series on the influx of immigrants to Ellis Island as a project helping his students on the importance of respecting immigrants, also documenting harsh labor conditions. Hines had fallen in love with photography to use it in a way to express important issues without using words. Since Hines was one of the earliest photographers to use photography as a documentary tool, he quickly became very successful. Hine would pose his subjects like child labors looking straight into the camera, so for whoever viewing the images would have no choice but to look directly into the subject’s eyes giving a feeling of emotion towards these children.

This type of photography was bold and powerful but effective for those viewing it. Two years later, Hines left his job as a teacher to become a freelance photographer for the National Child Committee (NCLC), an agency that promoted and aided enactment of child labor laws (iphf). Between 1908 and 1916, Hines traveled extensively from the Northeast to the south, photographing children working under extreme conditions in factories, mines, and mills (academic). Being dedicated to exploiting these labor industries, Hines would often have to dress in disguise in order to gain entry into these places where children were employed. This was necessary as many owners were against social reform and instead acted violently against reformers. Hines would pose as insurance agents, a bible salesman, and a postcard seller.

Once inside, under pressure of being discovered, Hines would work fast to photograph the children working. Using his experiance from being a teacher, he spoke comfortably with them, gained their trust quickly, and gained as much information as possible regarding their name, age, job description, and information regarding their unique situation. While at the same time, he secretly took notes of his conversations with the children that he kept inside his coat pocket. If Hines was unable to determine a child’s age by speaking to him, he would often measure their height with buttons on his vest to estimate the age. In 1909 Hine published Day Laborers Before Their Time, the first of his many photo stories documenting the horrors of child labor.

These photos were eventually used to help convince the government to take an important step in the fight of child labor, finally passing the Keating-Owens Act in 1916 (culture trip). Hines then briefly traveled to the Balkans and France with the red cross documenting the effect of World War 1. He later documented the construction of the Empire State building in 1930-1931 and even went to extremes by hanging upside down from a crane to photograph the workers (history place). During the depression, after being repeatedly denied to take part in other documenting photography projects, Hine became practically unknown. It until after his death that an exhibition was made from his photos recapturing him as an artist whose imagination and photos made a major impact on the progress of the child labor and other events. These images not only greatly impacted social reform but also inspired others on the concept of art photography. Hine set completely new standards for photography, inspiring many other photographers that saw the power and emotion in his photos, to follow his influence.