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Lewis Wickes Hine and Child Labor

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Following the abolishment of slave trade and slave labor in the U.S., the subsequent years were marked with diverse labor practices such as child labor and numerous revolts (Seixas, 397). During this period, many plantation and factory owners who had previously relied on slaves and indentured servants for vital, cheap labor were experiencing unbearable shortage, with the limited laborers demanding high wages. To prevent their investments, the industries and farms turned to cheap child labor, absorbing hundreds of thousands of children below the age of fourteen into strenuous, backbreaking labor. At that time legal, not many people realized the bad side of forcing children to work. Currently it is estimated that approximately 22%, 32%, 17% and 1% of child labor is in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and America respectively (Sampsell-Willmann, 15). Lewis Hine was an American photographer and sociologist, who through his extensive photography and public speeches spearheaded the battle for abolishment of the child labor. In this paper the life, work and contributions of Lewis Wickes Hine to ending child labor will be discussed. The concept of child labor will also be highlighted.

Child Labor

According to the International Labor Organization, child labor refers to the employment of children to do regular, sustained work or labor. The modal consensus for minimal age varies between 14-16 years in many countries. United States’ Child labor laws restrict any form of employment in an establishment without parental guidance at 16 years, except in agriculture where children may work during off-school hours (Seixas, 11). Today, child labor is still prevalent globally. As depicted by UNICEF, more than 250 million children are involved in one way or another in child labor (“The History Place”, 1).

Lewis Wickes Hines’s background

Lewis Hines was born in Wisconsin on 26th September, 1874. He attended the University of Chicago where he studied sociology. He also took studies in the New York University as well as Columbia University. In 1901, Lewis moved to New York where he worked in the Ethical Culture School as a school teacher. He taught nature and Geography, often leading his students to outdoor explorations. It was during this time that he acquired a camera with which he captured many instances of child labor and other social injustices in different environments. A strong desire for social reform led Lewis to put together his first major work on social injustice and poor living conditions named Immigrants on Ellis Island in 1905. This document was the first documentary so far incorporating photography as a major communication tool (Sampsell-Willmann, 16).

The National Child Labor Committee was formed in 1904 with the aim of fighting the child labor. In 1908, the committee appointed Lewis to head investigations and photography. During this appointment, Lewis completed composing two works, one named Child labor in the Carolinas completed in 1909 and Day Laborers before their time (1909). In this period Hine travelled more than 12 000 miles visiting numerous farms, factories and homes to find information regarding child labor. Owing to the sensitivity of child labor debate during this time, he was constantly denied access to many factories and other establishments. For this reason, he often paused as a different person in many instances, sometimes masquerading as a missionary, or as a fire inspector, or a Bible salesman, insurance agent or even a book seller. Once he gained access, he quickly seized every opportunity to talk to laboring children and took their photographs. In addition, he held a small notebook in which he scribbled points during the hasty interviews (Hine and Bannon, 24).

Using these and similar methods, Lewis obtained vast amounts of information concerning the plight of children as underage laborers, their abuse – both physical and emotional, their exposure and vulnerability to occupational hazards such as cuts, bruises, burns, radiations and such other often life threatening scenario. In addition, he vividly captured the vices, which the juveniles were exposed to such as the red-light district activities of alcoholism, drugs and prostitution. Many of those exposed to these harsh conditions included children between the ages of six and twelve, some too young to spell their names. His work greatly contributed to the passage of the laws against the child labor (“The History Place”, 1). Later, Hine took assignments as a photographer during the First World War as a photographer for the American Red Cross. During this assignment, Lewis extensively covered the painful conditions of wounded soldiers in the trenches. He took another job for the American Red Cross during the great depression, covering the food relief situation in the American south. Other than these assignments, he was also appointed as the chief photographer during the construction of the Empire State Building. All these works resulted in a collection of more than 5,000 photographs documented by the Library of congress featuring his works (Sampsell-Willmann, 22).

Though his career was passionate and much publicized, Lewis Hine died poor. He lost his earnings and his house when he could not clear his loans, and his last days were marked with sickness and abject poverty. He died on 3rd November 1940, aged 66, in New York. In the following section this paper will explore in depth some of his major works including Immigrants on Ellis Island, Child labor in the Carolinas and Day Laborers before their time as well as his coverage of the Empire State Building construction.

Immigrants on Ellis Island

Ellis Island is a 27.5 acres island in the New York harbor, which currently is built up. Since the year 1990, the Island has hosted an immigration museum. The main building was constructed in 1900. Currently it is operated by the National park service under the ownership of the federal government. Since its opening date on 1st January, 1892, millions of immigrants were received in the building. Lewis documented the state of immigrants on the Island in the year 1905, mostly in the form of pictures and scribbled interviews. Lewis went into the Island in 1904, with an aim to portray the situation through photographs. During the time, there was a growing anti-immigrant sentiment. About 2% of the immigrants were rejected and turned back due to reasons such as ailments, bad criminal records among others. Thousands were hospitalized in the Island’s medical facility and many eventually died (Seixas, 395).

Child Labor in the Carolinas

Most of the work in this book was compiled between 1908-1912, when Lewis was on appointment as an investigator and photographer. He collected numerous instances of the child labor in Carolina. In his typical style he would capture a photograph and then proceed to interview the subject, usually a child barely ten, regarding the circumstances of the work he/she was doing, the pay they were receiving and what they felt about the job. Lewis captured on photographs cases of children working in coal mines. The stories he got were briefly included with the subject’s photograph for effect.

On another instance, he captured an eleven years old girl who was working in a mill just standing near a window and admiring the outside world. She was working in Rhodes Mfg co. in North Carolina. In a separate photo, he depicted boys working in a spinner who were so young and short they had to climb up in order to remove a faulty bobbin in Bibb Mill, Georgia. These types of explicit photos and accompanying commentaries helped to bring out the true concept of child labor to the millions of Americans who would never gain access into mills and factories where the children worked. The daily wage for most of these children was less than 50 cents, yet they were working for twelve hours or more. In addition, he captured photos of children who were involved with newspaper selling, some as little as four years old. In one outstanding photo, he captured a little boy who was overcome with sleep during business hours and chose to lie down in the stairs in a building in Washington (Sampsell-Willmann, 20).

While Lewis struggled to bring out nothing but the reality of the situation and not exaggerate, some of the pictures he captured were still very emotionally engaging, leading to a decision to pass the child labor bill. This would ensure that future children’s generations were safe from the child labor till they attain the right age. Byron Hamilton was so young but was working in a fish canning factory in Maine. At the time Lewis took his photograph, he had a badly cut finger but could still work. Most other children had similar cuts on their hands, some missing entire fingers. The works of Lewis further document the children’s narrations that their median wage was below a dollar, usually 75 cents, though they sometimes worked from seven in the morning through midnight in order to earn a dollar. It was such revelations that moved people to decide to end the child labor.

 Day Laborers Before Their Time

In this work, Hine continued to expose the negative side of the child employment through such depictions as the breaker boys among other photographs. These images essentially captured boys who toiled long hours in dangerous and dark places. Especially susceptible to adverse conditions were the boys and girls who worked in coal mines underground, as well as those who operated steam boilers. These children risked their lives every day without insurance or the mere guidance of guardians while they worked in conditions typically suited only for adults. Even though most of these photographs were collected together with their accompanying captions, complete books or autobiographies of Lewis have only recently been composed.

In the accompanying captions, Wickes candidly captured the exact words used by his respondents during his brief, hurried and sometimes very secretly conducted interviews. For instance, when describing an episode depicting a girl laborer in Whitnel Spinning factory, he recalls the person in charge of the line indicating that the “youngster just happened in”, or that “she is standing in for her sister” or “we have so many of her size, but they work steadily” (Smith-Shank, 40). Ironically, the overseers were also quick to state that these children earned as little as 48 cents for a 12 hour shift, despite the fact that they were working steadily.

In separate episodes, Lewis also captured boys then called Newsies. These children were selling newspapers out in the street. In one particularly interesting case, a young boy called Tony Casale, 11 yrs. old, said he had been selling newspapers for four years. He showed Wickes marks on his arms where his father had bitten him for not having sold enough papers. The father demanded from him to sell more papers each day. While the average child of Tony’s age was expected to perform certain domestic chores, it was totally unacceptable to have eleven year old children toiling as late as 10 pm in order to feed their families, like in the case of Tony (“The History Place”, 1).

During The Empire State Building Erection

This work was done between 1930 and 1931, during the erection of the Empire State Building. In this collection Lewis mainly portrayed the positive side of labor. He showed the spirit of cooperation and expertise, he depicted the beauty and power of national unity. The Empire State building was the tallest building in New York as well as in America, succeeded by the World Trade Center building in 1972. It currently is the fourth tallest building in the Americas and the 15th tallest in the World. The building is used for offices and as an observation tower. It also houses numerous communication antenna and radio masts courtesy to its towering height of 450 meters. Lewis captured many photographs of the construction work, making him a pioneer in social photography. These photographs are already in special collections in the National Archives, where the public may order sepia copies of variable sizes which are issued with a certification of authenticity.

Contributions of the Work of Lewis Wickes Hines

In support of his active years between 1904 and 1915, Lewis labored tirelessly to fight the community attitudes towards important issues such as child labor and the outlook towards immigrants. He also brought a paradigm shift to sociology as well as the role photography played in social-cultural and investigative issues. In this section the paper will discuss these contributions (Smith-Shank, 35).

Child Labor

Lewis Wickes Hine was probably the greatest single advocate of the abolishment of the child labor in the United States. The federal government passed the Keating-Owen Act of 1916 banning children’s employment owing, partly, to the results of Lewis’s investigative photography. Hundreds of thousands of people who had been in his speeches, as well as millions more who saw the pictures that Wickes took and sent to be displayed in the media also changed their feelings towards children being employed. The people were willing to vote for the abolishment of child workers and to grant the children freedom from torture in any way.

The National Child Labor Committee appointed Lewis as its principal investigative photographer and later admitted that his work was the greatest contributor to the decisions taken to abolish the child labor. Initially, Hine had worked as a school teacher. This factor greatly helped him to communicate easily and find a rapport with children, earning him a place with them that enabled them to easily confide in him regarding their experiences and ordeals. He was also a balanced or impartial observer, not willing to exaggerate the conditions on the ground. On his photographs, for instance, there were very few cases of child beating or corporal punishment, in contrast to what some other campaigners depicted. He stated that he wanted to capture the situation as it was, since telling the truth stood a better chance of aiding people to make decisions. Hine even wrote about cases where children were willing to go into employment, without coercion (Sampsell-Willmann, 51).

Immigrant Prejudice

Wickes’s coverage of the Immigrant situation in Ellis Island in 1909 greatly helped in shedding light to the immigrants’ plight. The popular sentiment at the time was that immigrants would occupy the lands of the settled population, take away their jobs and probably spread new diseases. However, Lewis set out to show a balanced situation in the time of his photography in the main building of Ellis Island. His photos and his words advocated for greater human dignity, even for immigrants, and not prejudicial treatment. It would be remembered that most of the then citizens in the U.S., as it is the case today, owed their ancestry to immigrants, either free or through slavery or indentured servitude. The Native Americans held, and still hold, a very small portion of the population (Smith-Shank, 36).

Sociology and Documentary Photography

Many sources now refer to Lewis Wickes Hine as the possible father of documentary photography. A revolutionary, he introduced and demonstrated the successful use of photography to tell a story, even with minimal words. He used his camera to capture images that told the countless number of words. Today his idea is replicated in thousands of documentaries made every year (Seixas, 390).

Conclusion

Lewis was a great photographer and sociologist who was willing to see beyond the norms of his time. During a time when slavery, servitude and child labor were not easily abhorred, he chose to pioneer a change that would bring more sustainable balance and health in the social and economic systems of the modern day society. A successful scholar and a college teacher, Lewis died poor, just like the average person who paused for his photographs. Presented with the choice between rapid wealth for himself as a career lecturer and advocacy for greater justice for children, he chose the latter. In 1916 his efforts bore fruits that will be enjoyed for generations to come.

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