Lewis Wicke Hines. Fake fire inspector, postcard salesman & bible vendor. Child Labor Law superhero and photographer in disguise.
Lewis Wicke Hine (1874 – 1940) was among the first to use a camera as a tool for social reform. In his hands it was a weapon for change, and it was effective. His photographs were instrumental in changing America’s child labour laws.
While teaching in New York Hine would take his sociology classes to Ellis Island in the harbour to photograph the thousands of immigrants arriving daily to be processed. Sometime between 1904 – 1909, Hine realised documentary photography could used as a tool to fight for social reform. In 1908 he left his teaching job & became official photographer for the National Child Labor Committee.
He called this new direction, “the visual side of public education.”
Hine spent the next decade documenting child labour, initially focussing on the Carolina Piedmont area but moved on, all over the Northeast and the South. Anywhere children were working, Hine went. There were many types of industrial jobs performed by children. Most worked in cotton mills, others worked in factories making materials like glass and other products. Kids toiled worked in all kinds of sweatshops, worked on the docks. It was common for children to join their families working on farms, picking and sowing, mostly tobacco and corn fields. One of the hardest jobs for an adult is mining. For the kids working in mines this had to have been the harshest ordeal. Mining was extremely dangerous; explosions occurred regularly; workers breathed in toxic fumes; they’d spent long hours toiling in darkness and heat. Child labour wiped out their childhood and their education.
If finding children at work was easy, photographing them there wasn’t. To gain entry to the mills, mines and factories, Hine used disguise. He insinuated himself in as a fire inspector, a postcard salesman, a bible salesman, even an industrial photographer documenting factory machinery. Hine – a slight bespectacled schoolteacher-like figure, dwarfed by his Graflex camera – was frequently threatened with violence or even death by factory police and foremen. The immorality of child labour was carefully hidden from public view and photography was prohibited as any exposure posed a serious threat to the industry.
Hine’s images are unflinching. Heartbreaking even now. Each is accompanied by his own sparsely written caption. Just the facts. These kids with their already world-weary faces staring out at us are still confronting. The endless repetition of an unarguable truth (Hine took 1000s of these images) grinds us down. But that’s the point.
“Perhaps you are weary of child labor pictures.” said Lewis Hine of his work for the National Child Labor Committee, “Well, so are the rest of us, but we propose to make you and the whole country so sick and tired of the whole business that when the time for action comes, child-labor pictures will be records of the past.”
He would later say, “There were two things I wanted to do. I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected. I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated.”
Hine’s photographs supported the NCLC’s lobbying to end child labor and in 1912 the Children’s Bureau was created. 1938’s Fair Labor Standards Act eventually brought child labour in the US to an end.
The Great Depression of the 1930’s did for Hine and he struggled finding a job to support his family. His wife died in 1939 and on November 3, 1940, he died too. Poor and forgotten. It wasn’t until after his death that Hine was recognized for the lesson he left behind about the power of photography as a force for truth and change.