Did Lewis Wickes Hine Exploit The Children He Strived To Save?
I thought I would put up a bit more of my degree work on the blog in the hope it helps out at least one person. This is an essay on American photographer Lewis Hine and was submitted as my first year essay.
Did Lewis Wickes Hine Exploit The Children He Strived To Save?
On the 25th April 1904 at the famous Carnegie Hall, New York a meeting had been organised. This meeting of minds was attended by people from all walks of life with one purpose, to force mass political change against the increased use of child labour within the United States and by the end of this meeting a new movement had been formed. This new movement was called the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) and the founders of this organisation hoped to regulate and eliminate the use of child labour using progressive social reforms across all the States of America. It was from the seeds of this meeting and the creation of the NCLC that Lewis Wickes Hine would become one of the most influential photographers of the 20th Century.
This essay will follow Hine through his early years from small town America, looking at the influences that helped shape him to become one of the most renowned photographers in American history. It will also discuss how the NCLC’s appointment of Hine helped dramatize the plight of children being exploited by American industrialists and how Hines own photographic methods to inform and provoke social change may have also been of a questionable nature.
However, Hine had always had ambitions to be a teacher and so he continued to study in his spare time such subjects as stenography, drawing and sculpture and in 1900 he enrolled at the University of Chicago to study sociology. But in 1901 after a chance proposition by reformist Frank Manny who recognised Hine’s potential, Hine was invited by Manny to teach Geography and Nature studies at New York City’s Ethical Cultural School. Hine was now 26 years old and after working and studying so hard for the past eight years with little recognition, Hine jumped at the chance to teach and so he moved to the heady heights of New York to begin a new life.
His First Attempts at Photography
No one seems to know for sure when Hine first picked up a camera, but it is believed that it was between 1903 and 1904 that he had his first experiences in photography. What can be confirmed is that it was also around this time that Frank Manny began to see the benefits of using photography as a tool for educating students and to also document the daily life of the school (fig 2), but he lacked an appropriate expert in his faculty to take on such a role.
So he convinced Hine to take on the task, even though Hine had virtually no experience in using a camera. So Hine, using only a $10 box camera began to record daily events at the New York Ethical Cultural School. These would be Hine’s first credible attempts at documenting the day to day lives of children in New York and soon after this Hine became involved in another project with Manny to photograph the immigrants of Ellis Island.
The Ellis Island Immigrants
Unlike earlier photographers such as Jacob Riis’s photographic studies of the New York Tenements, which portrayed immigrants through photography in a stereo typical down trodden fashion, Hine wanted to grant them the respect and civility he felt they deserved. So between 1904 and 1909 he took around 200 photographs depicting immigrants as they passed through Ellis Island. Hine quickly learnt the art of photography and began composing shots in order for him to be able to tell a story. Hine had begun to create history for the immigrants and he was now a spokesman for them through his photography. Hine showed there was a human side to this manmade landscape in a way never captured before.
Here we see a perfect example of Hines early techniques of composition (fig 3). In the aptly name photograph, ‘Peace an Ellis Island Madonna’ taken by Hine in 1904. Hine has photographed a mother and child as they are waiting to pass through immigration controls at Ellis Island. They appear to be gazing into each other’s eyes; Hine wanted to paint a picture of the uncertainty of arriving in a new country in order to evoke an array of emotions from the viewer. However if we analyse the picture further, it could also be said that the women was looking at the child to reassure her she is safe and the child could be looking at the mother for further reassurance due Hine’s presence.
Again (fig 4) we see another example of Hines manipulation through composition. This example shows a young Russian Jewish woman at Ellis Island. Hine appears to have isolated the women from the other immigrants and used a shallow depth of field in order to draw the viewer’s attention immediately to the subject with no other distractions. This method of isolation almost invites you into the women’s world. No longer are you a spectator watching Ellis Island immigrants, you are now part of one immigrant’s journey. But as you look closer at the women you can’t help but notice her blank expressionless stare. The woman looks bewildered, unkempt and uninterested and even though Hine would have been encouraging the pose, you can’t help but wonder just how much this woman actually understood what was going on. I would go as far as to say that from her expression she seems almost intimidated by the presence of Hine.
These were Hine’s first attempts at social commentary with his unique styling and composition, combined with Hine’s purity of vision and you had a man with a very unique talent. In what was fast becoming an age of transition from the written word to the articulated image. Hine may not have studied photography with any masters, but during those Ellis Island years he most defiantly graduated as a Master in photography.
Hine and the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC)
By 1907 Hine had earned himself a reputation for being an accomplished sociological photographer who had used his camera to provide a true visual representation of immigrants entering the United States. It was therefore no surprise that in 1908 the NCLC approached Hine and offered him the opportunity to carry out a photographic investigation into the exploitation of child workers, who were being used for the sole purpose of cheap labour. The NCLC wanted to introduce federal laws to ensure children were protected against such practices and wanted to use Hine’s expertise to capture children whilst in their places of work. Hine, coming from a teaching background and working so closely with children welcomed the NCLCs desire to end child maltreatment and he began travelling extensively across the United States photographing child labour abuses in the factories, mines and mills across America
By now Hine’s was more than competent in the art of photography, but in order to get an accurate portrayal of the working conditions children faced, Hine would have to develop new methods in order to gain access to their environments. So Hine began to disguise himself and take on new guises in order to conceal his true identity and Hine quickly became a master in the art of deception. His new personas would take the form of a Health Inspector, Bible Salesman or even an Industrial Machine Photographer.
Once he gained entry to these places he was under constant pressure of being discovered, he would quickly note the child’s age, job description and any other information regarding their circumstances before taking their photographs and leaving without a fuss.
Even though Hine was now used to photographing some very uncomfortable scenes, he was still clearly shaken by some of the visits he made. On one such visit to the Bibb Mill in Georgia Hine noted, “many youngsters here, some boys were so small they had to climb up on the spinning frame to mend the broken threads and put back the empty bobbins.” (Lewis Hine 1874-1940 Photography: The Key Concepts P52)
A similar technique has also been applied in the Mill Girl photograph (fig 7) and what appears to be a girl looking out of a window is clearly not as it seems. On closer inspection what we actually see is a young girl standing next to a large dominating piece of machinery in what appears to be a never ending room. As she looks out of the window she could actually be looking out from the bars of a prison. So when we put all the parts of the picture together what we see is a young girl engulfed by her surroundings and imprisoned by industrialisation. These types of compositions where precisely the type of photographs the NCLC needed in order to keep their propaganda machine rolling and Hine continued to be their golden boy.
Lewis Hine was clearly at the top of his field gaining worldwide accolade for many of his photographs. But could the methods Hine deployed to acquire these images also have been questionable? Let’s not forget that Hine was a small town boy who made good. He was clearly ambitious and proved himself to be a master photographer in only a short time. The images Hine produced outside of the factories, mine and mills where just as good as the ones taken inside these establishments. So why did Hine feel the need to disguise himself and create subterfuge around his work?
A perfect example of this is a photograph taken in 1911 of breaker boys outside of a Pennsylvanian coal mine (fig 8). Breaker boys where used to pick rock out of coal as it sped down the production lines on its way for dispatch. Being a breaker boy was seen as one of the worst jobs you could have due to the constant danger and unhealthy conditions. So the breaker boys image clearly didn’t require any theatrics as it was obvious to see that these young boys not only worked hard but also in a very unhealthy and dangerous environment. We must therefore consider the possibility that Hine knew that much like the photo journalism of today, the more shocking the story, the higher the accolade and of course the more memorable the photograph.
It was a speech that Hine made to the NCLC in 1909 that goes someway to swaying this argument to be if anything partially true. Hine spoke directly about the question of truth in photography. He said “The photograph itself was a symbol of reality” and he warned that “an unbounded faith in the integrity of photographs is often rudely shaken” “because while photographs may not lie, liars may photograph” (Lewis Hine 1874-1940 http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk)
So if Hine had come to these conclusions at such an early stage of his photographic career, why wouldn’t he apply this theory to his own work? If he did, wouldn’t this mean that the one thing Hine detested so much; child exploitation, was actually the thing that helped to elevate his own career. When we look at the photographs taken by Hine it is clear to see that he must have manipulated very vulnerable children to pose for him and much like the Ellis Island immigrants the children would have had no idea who Hine was, what he was doing there or why he was taking their photograph and given this unusual set of circumstances you would expect most children to be compliant to his requests.
Furthermore Hines images tend to always be set in an industrial environment and his agricultural photographs where never put on the same pedestal or given the same notoriety. So why was this? Could it have been because Hine knew that rural children wouldn’t have been seen in the same light as their city counterparts. Would children working in the country have actually been seen as a good thing? By definition farm children would have been living in a far healthier environment getting lots of fresh air and exercise.
The example of the Laura the berry picker (fig 9) does show a different side of child labour and unlike the Mill Girl photograph (fig 7) we see a smiling child, she looks content, very happy and is even wearing a bow in her hair. One can almost see her flirting with the camera, with what can only be described as a cheeky look on her face. This type of image went against everything Hine was trying to portray and explains why many of his agriculture photographs remained for the most part in the shadows, with mainly his industrial photography being used by the NCLC’s propaganda machine.
However these are probably arguments that will never actually be answered and to some extent asking such questions would be seen as heresy, and besides is it really necessary to paint a shadow over such a prominent figure in American history. It is fair to say that Hine went above and beyond what was required of him and whether his intentions were slightly questionable. Hines photographic master pieces of political imagery helped shaped the future child Labour markets of the American economy and without his work the plight of many children across the United States may have gone unnoticed for many more years.
•Figure 1: A photograph of Lewis Wickes Hines 1874-1940 (undated)
•Figure 2: Shows a very early photograph taken by Hines of a history class being held at the Ethical Cultural School New York (undated)
•Figure 3: Depicts a mother and child on Ellis Island. This photograph is famously called ‘Peace an Ellis Island Madonna’ taken by Hine in 1904.
•Figure 4: Russian Jewish Women Photographed in 1905 at Ellis Island.
•Figure 5: Shows children mending broken threads at the Bibbs Mill Georgia 1905.
•Figure6: Children photographed outside of a Mass Mill in Lindale Georgia 1913.
•Figure 7: Mill Girl featured standing at a window in a North Carolina Mill 1908.
•Figure 8: Breakers boys photographed outside of a Pennsylvania Coal Company in 1911.
•Figure 9: Laura Petty, a 6 year old berry picker on Jenkins farm, Rock Creek, Maryland, 1909
RUSSELL FREEDMAN – Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor – Clarion Books – ISBN 0-395-73726-8 [Pages 7, 8, 9]
ROSENBLUM, TRATCHTENBURY, ISRAEL – America and Lewis Hine – Aperture ISBN 0-89381-008-8 – [Pages 16, 17]
CHRIS BEETLES – Gallery: The Photographers 2010 – Chris Beetles Ltd ISBN 978-1-905738-28-1 – [Pages 12, 13]
ALMA DAVENPORT – The History of Photography: An Overview – University of New Mexico Press ISBN 0-240-80041-9 – [Page 43]
JEAN-CLAUDE, ROUILLE, ANDRE LEMAGNY – A History of Photography – Cup ISBN 0-521-34407-7 – [Page 64,65]
KATE SAMPSELL WILLMAN – Lewis Hine as a Social Critic – University Press of Mississippi – ISBN 978-1-60473-368-6 – [Page 87]
MARY WARNER MARIEN – Photography a Cultural History – Laurence King –- ISBN-13: 978-1856694933 – [Page 230]
LUIS A AVILES – The University of Puerto Rico [WWW] Available at:
http://academic.uprm.edu/laviles/id194.htm [Accessed on 25/01/12]
THE NATIONAL CHILD LABOR COMMITTEE – About Us [WWW] Available at:
http://www.nationalchildlabor.org/history.html [Accessed on 25/01/12]
AGILE WRITER – Biography & History [WWW] Available at:
http://agilewriter.com/Biography/JacobRiis.htm [Accessed on 27/01/12]
THE GUARDIAN (2008) – Guardian Art & Design Blog [WWW] Available at:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/artblog/2008/apr/29/amongthearchivesamericanim [Accessed on 27/01/2012]
TASTING RHUBARB BLOG SPOT – More About Art [WWW] Available at: http://tastingrhubarb.blogspot.com/2009_10_01_archive.html [Accessed on 28/01/2012]
ELLIS ISLAND FOUNDATION – Ellis Island History [WWW] Available at: http://www.ellisisland.org/genealogy/ellis_island_history.asp [Accessed on 28/01/2012]
BRAINY QUOTE – Lewis Hine Quotes [WWW] Available at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/l/lewis_hine.html#ixzz1l4O0Zwx9
[Accessed on 30/01/2012]
LEWIS HINE PHOTOGRAPHS Lewis Wickes Hines Pictures [WWW] Available at: http://www.lewishinephotographs.com/ [Accessed on 25/01/2012]
Figure 1: A photograph of Lewis Wickes Hines (undated) – [WWW] Available at: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/QNMHeCqUXmU/ThoZvHT0P6I/AAAAAAAAGOY/oou2uC34vBc/s1600/736.jpg [Accessed on 24/01/2012]
Figure 2: Shows a very early photograph taken by Hines of a history class being held at the Ethical Cultural School New York (undated) – [WWW] Available at: http://turnofthecentury.tumblr.com/page/397 [Accessed on 25/01/2012]
Figure 3: Depicts a mother and child on Ellis Island. This photograph is famously called ‘Peace an Ellis Island Madonna’ taken by Hine in 1904 – [WWW] Available at: http://anthonylukephotography.blogspot.com/2011/07/photographer-profile-lewis-hine.html [Accessed on 25/02/2012]
Figure 4: Russian Jewish Women Photographed in 1905 at Ellis Island. – [WWW] Available at: http://ffffound.com/image/583693752b8fde961b6e9f075e7143fe63c61cc0 [Accessed on 25/01/2012]
Figure 5: Shows children mending broken threads at the Bibbs Mill Georgia 1905. – [WWW] Available at: http://gallery.pictopia.com/archives/gallery/95340/photo/8611034/?o=19 [Accessed on 27/01/2012]
Figure 6: Children photographed outside of a Mass Mill in Lindale Georgia 1913. – [WWW] Available at: http://www.lewishinephotographs.com/content/noon-hour-massachusetts-mill-lindale-ga-7 [Accessed on 29/01/2012]
Figure 7: Mill Girl featured standing at a window in a North Carolina Mil 1908. – [WWW] Available at: http://www.criticsatlarge.ca/2011/05/witness-to-shame-visual-legacy-of-lewis.html [Accessed on 30/01/2012]
Figure 8: Breakers boys photographed outside of a Pennsylvania Mill 1911. – [WWW] Available at: http://liquidnight.tumblr.com/search/hine/page/2 [Accessed on 25/02/2012]
Figure 9: Laura Petty, a 6 year old berry picker on Jenkins farm, Rock Creek, Maryland, 1909 – [WWW] Available at: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lewis_Hine,_Laura_Petty,_a_6_year_old_berry_picker_on_Jenkins_farm,_Rock_Creek,_Maryland,_1909.jpg [Accessed on 25/02/2012]
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