One of the many remarkable powers of photography is that it can be used to right social injustices. American photographer and social reformer Lewis Hine (September 26, 1874-November 3, 1940) was keenly aware of this and regularly enlisted photography’s ability to bring social issues to the public’s attention.
Trained as a sociologist, some of Hine’s righteous photographic endeavors included portraying impoverished immigrants on Ellis Island and the tenements and sweatshops where they were forced to live and work, published in Charities and the Commons in 1908; photographing the living conditions of French and Belgian citizens during World War I for the Red Cross; and capturing children working in mills and factories, culminating in the books Child Labor in the Carolinas and Day Laborers Before Their Time, both published in 1909.
Having worked as a school teacher, the third issue (child labor) especially hit home for Hine, who was often critical of the United States’ lack of federal child labor laws (some states had enacted legislation, but none existed at the national level). In 1911, Hine was hired as staff investigator for the National Child Labor Committee to delve more deeply into child-labor conditions in the United States.
In one year alone, he travelled over 12,000 miles taking pictures of exploited children working in factories and living in slums. Since factory owners frequently refused to allow Hine to photograph, he sometimes disguised himself, hiding his camera from view. Once inside, as he conversed with the children, he took notes surreptitiously inside his coat pocket and used the buttons on his vest to gauge the children’s height.
Hine worked for the National Child Labor Committee for eight years, and in 1916, he saw the change he worked so hard to propel. The Keating-Owen Act, a federal statute prohibiting interstate shipment of goods produced in factories or mines that employed children under 14 or adolescents age 14-16 working more than eight hours in a day, became a law.
Unfortunately, just two years later, in 1918, it was deemed unconstitutional in Hammer v. Dagenhart as an unwarranted encroachment on state powers.
However, in 1941, just one year after Hine’s death, the permanent change he wanted to see finally happened. Hammer v. Dagenhart was overturned when the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the first act to prescribe federal regulation of wages and hours.
The lesson is clear: Photograph what’s important to you. If you don’t see the change you desire in your lifetime, know that you have done the essential job of pushing the conversation in the right direction. Hopefully, some like-minded individual will follow and continue to carry the torch.