I think of photographer Lewis Hine every Labor Day. He was deeply affected by the long hours and low pay he earned while working to help support his widowed mother and siblings during the 1890s in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Hine first learned photographic processes around 1904 in New York City, where he also became active in social reform movements. In 1906 he began photographing for the National Child Labor Committee, an organization that coordinated public information programs to expose the damaging effects of exploitative child labor systems in the United States. Hine traveled to mines, mills, canneries, and factories, often concealing his camera while pretending to be a Bible salesman in order to gain access to facilities that hid their child labor practices. At times he would photograph through the buttonhole of his coat, and he frequently faced violence when foremen discovered what he was doing.
The thousands of photographs Hine made for the NCLC between 1906 and 1924 served as undeniable evidence of physical harm and abuse. They were used for public speaking events and in posters and handouts that eventually convinced lawmakers and the public alike to change American labor laws. National child labor standards, however, were a long and uphill battle: Although Congressional legislation setting age minimums for child labor was introduced in 1916, it wasn’t until 1938 that Congress finally outlawed child labor through the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Although his photographs depicted the abusive nature of child labor, Hine always endeavored to celebrate the honorable intentions of the children he met. Caught up in a system where they held no power, the children worked to better their lives and those of their families. Hine celebrated the dignity of meaningful labor while fighting to protect the most vulnerable employees.
—Julia Dolan, The Minor White Curator of Photography
Lewis W. Hine (American, 1874–1940), Making Stockings, 1915. Gelatin silver print. Bequest of Fae Heath Batten, 1997.58.73