These photos ended child labor in the US

These photos ended child labor in the US

August 17, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


Sadie Pfeifer was 9 years old when this photo
was taken. Operating heavy machinery that’s nearly
twice her height in a cotton mill in Lancaster, South Carolina, in 1908. She was just one of many children working
in mills, fields, factories, and mines. And although these kids were spread across
the United States, working in separate industries, they all had one thing in common: They all met Lewis Hine. At the turn of the 20th century, the United
States knew it had a child labor problem. The 1900 federal census revealed that 1.75
million children under the age of 16, more than one in five, were working at this time. The Industrial Revolution had mechanized American
and European manufacturing, and a cheap labor force was needed to complete repetitive tasks
for hours on end. Children from poor families were targeted
for these jobs because they would work for next to nothing and were less likely to strike
than adults. State legislatures and the American public
knew this was happening on a mass scale, but didn’t act. Until they saw what it actually looked like. Starting in 1908, the newly formed National
Child Labor Committee hired a photographer to investigate and report on the industries
employing children. That photographer was Lewis Wickes Hine: educator,
sociologist, and member of the Progressive Movement. A period in the United States that saw a wave
of political activism and social reform. Hine emphasized the potential power of photography
as a tool for social reform in a speech he gave in 1909 called “Social photography:
how the camera may help.” He said, “The dictum, then, of the social
worker is “Let there be light;” and in this campaign for light we have for our advance
agent the light writer — the photograph.” He traveled extensively, gathering information,
interviews, and images of working children across the country. He visited coal mines in Pennsylvania. Where adolescent “breaker boys” worked
underground for hours, separating impurities from coal. Sardine cutters in Maine. Oyster shuckers in Louisiana, some as young
as 4 years old. Tobacco pickers in Kentucky. Cranberry pickers in Massachusetts. Beet farms in Colorado. And young messengers and newsboys in cities
all over the country. Many of the photos captured adults nearby,
supervising the children while they worked. When Hine wasn’t allowed access to the mills
and factories, he waited outside and documented the comings and goings of its
workers, whose shifts often lasted late into the night. Laborers would pose for portraits and tell
Hine a bit about themselves, their wages, and their work conditions. Sometimes they showed their horrific injuries
and described what happened, like this boy from Bessemer City, North Carolina, whose
hand got crushed in the gears of a cotton spinner. We know that because each photo, numbering
over 5,000, includes a detailed caption written by Hine. Hine coined the term “photo stories” to
describe this marriage of images and text, and it’s a big part of how the photos humanized
the lives of child laborers to an indifferent public. But it’s also his photographic technique
that makes them feel so personal. Let’s use the photos of cotton mill workers
like Sadie as an example. First, many of these photos are framed the
exact same way, just substituting a different worker. Hine was trying to show that each child’s
experience was part of a widespread problem, and the repetition in the images signals that. You can really see how intentional the framing
is when you look at how the image of Sadie appeared when it was first published in a
Progressive magazine, in 1909. It’s opposite a nearly identical photo of
a different worker, set so that the symmetry of the two images makes the machinery seem
to go on and on. The left-hand caption says, “Spinner. A type of many in the mill.” Hine’s photographs are also shot with a
very shallow depth of field, which basically means a narrow part of the photo is in focus,
and the rest is blurred out. A photo with a deep depth of field would look
like this one by Jacob Riis, who was photographing New York City slums around the same time as
Hine. Notice how the playground in the background
is in focus, just like the kids in the foreground. Now look at Hine’s portraits. In this one, the factory this boy works at
looms behind him, but it’s almost totally blurred out. This was a recurring visual theme — to include
the machinery or the workplace in the frame, but obscure it, favoring the worker instead. This narrow point of focus, combined with
shooting from a lower angle — the eye level of these children — is why these images
are so effective at humanizing their subjects. Photos like the ones from the South Carolina
cotton mills changed the public perception of child labor in the United States, ultimately pressuring state legislatures to
introduce laws regulating work for those under the age of 18 — and sending kids back to
school. Lewis Hine went on to photograph the construction
of the Empire State Building in New York City, using the same dignifying techniques he photographed
child laborers with: Considering the perspective of his subjects with a narrow focus, emphasizing the worker,
not the machinery. Hine was one of the first to use a camera
as a tool for social documentary, to shine a light on the mostly unseen. He understood early on the power images have
to tell stories. As he said in that 1909 speech: “Take the photograph of a tiny spinner in
a Carolina cotton mill. With a picture thus sympathetically interpreted,
what a lever we have for the social uplift.” Hey everyone, that was Darkroom season 1! I’m going to take a break from it and work
on some other stuff, like History Club with Phil. If there are photos you think would make good
stories for the next season, make sure to leave a comment below. In the meantime, if you’re looking for more
great videos on photography in history, check out the documentary “The Man Who Shot Tutankhamun”,
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