While there are now many iconic images demonstrating the power of photography, the earliest examples remain some of the most compelling. In the latest episode of the Darkroom video series by Vox, we are reminded of the photos that were instrumental to ending child labor in the Unites States.
As mentioned in the Vox video description, child labor was widely practiced until a photographer revealed what was happening through his work. His name was Lewis Wickes Hine, and he was a sociologist, educator, photographer, and a member of the Progressive Era. He was hired by the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) in the early 1900s to travel across the US to investigate and report on the labor conditions of child workers employed in various industries. He documented children laboring in cotton mills, fields, factories, and mines, as well as those working as newsboys and messengers on the streets.
His findings and photographs were definitely eye-opening and poignant, both then and now. Over 5,100 photographic prints and 355 glass negatives that he produced between 1908 to 1924 showed the working and living conditions of many children and adults alike. According to the Library of Congress, he also covered several immigrant groups and African Americans in their work, home, and school. In addition, he conducted interviews and took notes, which he used to make detailed captions for the photos — including details about the accidents the children suffered while on the job.
Today, the NCLC collection remains a valuable resource for studying many aspects of work and life in the early 20th century: labor, reform movements, urban life, education, institutions, and industrial and agricultural sites.
Going back to the Vox video, it outlines some of the features and characteristics that make Hine’s photos effective in humanizing his subjects. He used a shallow depth of field and shot at the children’s eye level, isolating the subjects to draw the viewer’s eyes to them. By using repetition in the framing, he also also effectively demonstrated how each child was only one of many who are doing the same work across the country. He was among the first to realize that documentary photography can be a tool for bringing about social change and reform, using it to “shine a light on the mostly unseen.”
Check out the Vox YouTube channel for more videos from the Darkroom series.
Screenshot image from the video by Vox