Using Lewis Hine's Child Labor Photographs

Whether it be a painting or photograph, the picture is a symbol that brings one immediately into close touch with reality. In fact, it is often more effective than the reality would have been, because, in the picture, the non-essential and conflicting interests have been eliminated.

The average person believes implicitly that the photograph cannot falsify. Of course, you and I know that this unbounded faith in the integrity of the photograph is often rudely shaken, for, while photographs may not lie, liars may photograph. — Lewis Hine

Title: Young Driver in Mine, 09, 1908 from National Archives Record Group 102: Records of the Children's Bureau, 1908-2003

ARC Idenifier 523089, Local Identifer 102-LH-136

Editor's Note:

Hine's caution against "unbounded faith in the integrity of the photograph" echoes the aphorism usually attributed to Mark Twain that "figures don't lie, but liars figure." Since historians often use Hine's images both in our teaching and our research, we need to take his views very seriously indeed.

At left is one of his iconic images that nicely illustrates his point that, in many of his pictures, "the non-essential and conflicting interests have been eliminated." Mules were used in both antracite and bituminous mines to pull the coal to the railhead. Hine captured the young driver standing in front of the tracks, arms at his sides, miner's hat with its lamp on his head, whip around his neck. There is no mule to be seen. In fact, the depth of field is such that only the boy is in focus. He looks straight ahead, expressionless. His blackened face and neck contrast with the pale of his upper chest. We see what the photographer intended for us to see.

Kate Sampsell-Willmann, author of "Lewis Hine, Ellis Island, and Pragmatism: Photographs as Lived Experience," Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era," Vol. 7, No 2 (April 2008) and Lewis Hine As Social Critic (University Press of Mississippi, 2009), leads an open forum on how to interpret Hine's photographs of child laborers taken between 1908 and 1912 for the National Child Labor Committee.

We invite you to weigh in with suggestions about using these photographs — and others — both in teaching and in research. Simply click on Forums, on General Discussions, and then on "Using Lewis Hine's Child Labor Photographs." In order to comment, you wil have to register.

-- John F. McClymer

Kate Sampsell-Willman:

Context matters in trying to make sense of any historical source or artifact, including photographs. I want to start our discussion with some key questions to ask about Hine's images as well as some information about the state of photography in the Progressive Era.

Our underlying question is: How and why did Lewis Hine make this image to accomplish that goal?

The photography of Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940) divides into five categories (although they do overlap one another temporally): Ellis Island, child labor, tenement labor and living conditions, work portraits/interpretive photography (Hine’s terms), and the Great Depression. This Forum will focus initially on those photographs he made for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) that are currently available online at the National Archives Arcweb, http://arcweb.archives.gov/. However, since many of Hine’s signature traits remained unchanged throughout his career, most of the points raised in this opening comment apply to others of his work as well.

  • Our first question is who commissioned the photographs. Hine, unlike many photographers of his generation, did not pursue photography as a hobby; photography became his paid profession in 1907 or 1908. He did photograph to satisfy his own curiosity — especially at Ellis Island — but his child labor photographs were made for the NCLC; c. 1915 he became the director of information for the organization and was responsible for constructing exhibition panels to promote its reform agenda. If Hine’s photography had not been useful to the NCLC, he would not have kept his job. Informed by his Chicago-school background and prior deep concern for the welfare of children (his first profession was as a teacher at New York’s Ethical Cultural School), Hine’s work for the NCLC can give us some clues as to his political intent when composing his “Hineographs.” He investigated conditions and reported on what he saw, both in written notes and with his camera. Armed with a thesis — child labor harms children and my job is to expose it for the purpose of ending it — Hine traveled extensively on assignment to see what conditions were like in different types of work. He praised when he saw no exploitation, and he documented where it was rife.
  • A second question deals with physical perspective. Where was the photographer standing? Often, Hine could not obtain permission to photograph inside factories, so many of his child labor images are of a group of variously aged individuals standing in front of a mill building. When he did get inside, we need to ask how and why? As Hine became better known and the NCLC more effective in publicizing the evils of child labor, he often employed subterfuge to gain access. For example, he would claim to be an insurance or postcard photographer and would ask to photograph a machine with its operator (a child) in the frame — supposedly to gauge the size of the machine — in order to capture children at work and to disprove the oft-repeated excuse that children were “just visiting” their parents.
  • Among the other constraints on the photographer’s physical perspective are the lighting conditions. Harold Edgerton invented the strobe flash in 1931. Prior to that date, stop-action (non-blurred) photography had to be done in strong natural light, with a very long exposure (on a tripod), or lit with some source of artificial light.. Hine’s forays into the hallways of Ellis Island led him to become expert at a very tricky (and attention-getting) light source, magnesium flares. Candid photography was not possible inside dim factories or mines.
  • Next, and perhaps requiring the most attention and knowledge of the period, is to ask exactly what is in the image, and what has been left out? Except in his exhibition panels, Hine usually printed his images full frame. He photographed his earliest work for the NCLC on glass plates. They were tricky and cumbersome to use. Hine had one shot to get it right. Even after he started using celluloid film, his negatives were large, single sheet, and carefully crafted. Again, Hine’s images were rarely candid; most of them were posed. Everything that is in a Hineograph is in there because Hine wanted it, and everything that is missing is absent because Hine left it out. One can, and should, draw conclusions about Hine's intent from the inclusion or exclusion of an adult, a piece of machinery, or a living/working space in a particular image. Noting that he posed his subjects rather than captured candid images does not call into question his integrity. Honesty in photography was not only a personal ethic of Hine's; an honest photograph would accomplish more good for the NCLC's cause.
  • One question many ask about Hine’s pictures of working children is: Why do the children often seem to be happy or, at least, stoical? Because of the similar way he treated Ellis Island immigrants before he went to work for the NCLC and refugees in Europe after, it is clear that Hine’s emphasis was almost always on the positive in any situation. And in any case, if the children were already beyond help, then there would little incentive for philanthropists and/or Congress to step in to aid them. Hine depicted resilient boys and girls in conditions that, if went unchecked, would eventually destroy their chances for productive and fulfilling lives.
  • Hine photographed both children and adults in a full frontal position, as subjects in a conversation rather than as objects is a tableau. His large camera allowed him to photograph at child height, but he did so even when the child, like Laura Petty below, was so extremely small that he had to kneel to focus at eye level. He wanted the viewer to see the children as he did; as individual human beings with sweet, developing personalities in need of protection and not as propaganda objects. It is at this juncture that Hine's ability to infusie his images with his own ideas about society becomes important for the student of history. He became famous because his pictures were forceful tools in a political fight. They were so useful because they revealed the humanity of the children.

Figure 1: Title: Laura Petty, a 6 year old berry picker on Jenkins Farm. "I'm just beginnin'. Licked two boxes yesterday." Gets 2 [cents] a box. Rock Creek, Md.
Date: 06/07/1909


  • Perhaps the thorniest issue surrounding analysis of Hine images is the matter of captioning. Did Hine write a particular title, or did an editor? Since much of Hine’s work was done for one or another reform organization, he did not control the reproduction of his images. Yet, he did claim his images constituted what we today would call intellectual property, long before photographers routinely received credit in bylines. Most of Hine’s extant writings can be found in two archival areas: correspondence and notes on photographs, including original captions. In recent years, the collections that house Hine images have done a very good job of uploading Hine’s original notes on his images, often written in his hand on the back or in a corresponding list. Most of Hine’s published images, except those in Men at Work, his only published book, carry the caption of an editor (usually from The Survey) or art historian and publicist Elizabeth McCausland, who assisted Hine in preparing his 1938 retrospective for the Brooklyn Museum (then the Riverside Museum). A little research can tell you which captions were from Hine’s own notes. Armed with the correct caption, the photograph can yield more information about the subject and Hine’s original intent in making the image.

Hine's breathtaking photography

Hine’s photographs were widely circulated in magazines, newspapers and journals by the National Child Labor Committee, his employer. The Progressives would have been very much aware of them, the educated general public somewhat less aware, and the rest of the general public mostly unaware. But mill owners and politicians would have taken notice right away. Although there were many organizations and activists working to get child labor laws passed at the time, Hine’s photographs are generally recognized as the most important reason why states began to strengthen child labor laws, and why Congress passed the Owen-Keating Child Labor Act in 1916. Unfortunately, the law was ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1918, because it appeared to overstep the authority of Congress in regulating interstate commerce.
All of Hine’s child labor photographs, and captions, including the ones at the Eclipse Mill, are in the Library of Congress and are posted on its website. In addition, an extensive collection of the photos, negatives and captions are owned by the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The collection at the Library of Congress has no copyright limitations.
Renalt

kswillmann's picture

Child Labor and Lewis Hine

The historian can infer much about Hine’s political allegiances and his personal sense of duty from the picture of little Laura Petty (pictured above). As with many the images he made for the NCLC, its political message is a matter of context. Hine cherished children, and he opposed in general the debasement of work as a cultural value, the perversion of the ethic of work through the misuse of those who performed it. Well-versed users of Hine images usually skip the first thing that catches the eye. Instead we jump to what is actually an implied conclusion, that there is something drastically wrong in the world where a child is in such a situation. But, is that truly a forgone conclusion? We only know the image depicts a social wrong because Hine has told us it does. If that child had been out picking berries on a family picnic, we would read the image in an entirely different way.

Hine’s presence stole moments away from a child’s work, and he was usually repaid with a demure smile, a stocial look, or even a mask of fierce pride. It is by connecting with these children in this manner that Hine’s work can and should be read as artistic social documentary and not photojournalism or candid photography.

Begin your analysis by reading the image. Take the image in context with what your knowledge of Progressive Era reform tells you about Hine, and then turn to the image itself. Try to come to the image without too many preconceived notions, much as an undergraduate would. Yes, one’s historical and political background will color how the image will first be received, but try and put aside personal biases. What is the first thing that attracts the eye in Hine’s photograph of Laura Petty? That “there is something wrong with this picture” is really a secondary conclusion.

The first thing I register is Laura’s smile and body language. Vicki Goldberg wrote in the introduction to her Lewis Hine: Children at Work (1999) of her smile and stance, “A six-year-old berry picker flirts outrageously with the man who will immortalize her.” When contrasted with this natural childlike pose, the stained dress and bare feet create a sense of dislocation, made even more uncomfortable by the carefully tied but wilted bow. This is a happy picture transformed through context into an indictment. How does one make sense of such a complex photograph?

Ask the analytical questions of the image. Where is the photographer standing? Well, he wasn’t standing. Hine (then in his thirties) knelt on the ground with his cumbersome camera to photograph this diminutive berry picker. Hine’s career-long stylistic and intellectual choice to engage those he photographed, both physically and culturally and on their own level, is evident. Quite literally, Hine did not look down at people, especially children. His philosophical perspective led to a visual choice: he was on his knees and eye-to-eye, even with the littlest.

Hine needed time to arrange himself on the ground to make the image. Knowing that the NCLC photographer was not usually welcomed by many who employed children, one can infer that this particular employer had no qualms about Hine making pictures, believed a piece of subterfuge that Hine had offered to gain access, or was simply absent. Hine did not have to gain entry to a factory under the gaze of a foreman to make a picture of berry pickers. The process of employing migrants from East Coast cities (Baltimore in Laura’s case) to pick at harvest time was pretty well ingrained in the collective mind of a then still-agricultural nation; many saw nothing wrong with seasonal farm work. The on-again, off-again nature of agricultural work combined with the still living myth of the beneficence of farm work for children rendered Hine’s agricultural labor pictures less effective politically than those he made of children in mines and factories. With this picture and others like it, Hine was undertaking a Sisyphean task. Nonetheless, this has become an iconic child labor image. When we accept it as that, we also accept Hine’s argument for the necessity for national regulation of hours and universal education for all children, be they farm or industrial or mine workers. The conditions Hine documented of tiny miners and spinners had greater impact on the Progressive mind, but the same arguments against child labor can be read into Laura Petty’s situation. So, the next question is to ask what exactly is in the image, and what is not?

Hine made this image in the very strong natural light of the Maryland late summer, early fall and thus would have had enough light to shoot the image with both a stop-action shutter speed and a narrow aperture to capture as much depth of field as possible. Hine, an excellent technician, would have accomplished this by using a longish shutter speed (but not more than 1/60 of a second — otherwise Laura would not have appeared with stopped action; children move around). Using his knowledge of his craft, however, Hine isolated Laura and the bushes around her as the dominant elements of the image using a narrow plane of focus and thereby drew the eye of the viewer to the child and her immediate surroundings. The background recedes immediately and indistinguishably into blurred focus. Neither Laura’s parents nor coworkers are in the image, giving a more intimate feel to the interaction with the photographer. Yet there is a small, uncomfortable sense of abandonment. Laura is alone in the berry fields; the ghosts of other pickers are barely visible on the horizon.

Turn to the incongruities in the image. Laura’s overall bearing stands in stark contrast to the conditions in which we find her. The magical innocence of childhood has not been extinguished. To Hine’s audience, Laura would still appear to have the opportunity to have a healthy childhood and productive adulthood, if only those with power to do so acted to end her exploitation. She is outrageous as only those untainted by the crushing realities of poverty can be. Laura, however, is very visibly stained — tainted — by her life as an underpaid, overworked laborer. She remains emotionally unscarred in this image, but Hine offers very tangible evidence of how her optimism conflicts with her circumstances, and he relied on viewers to see what he wanted them to. Laura’s carefully tied ribbon and combed hair wilts in the heat of exertion. We surmise that she works in her pretty dress because it is likely the only item of clothing she owns, despite the fact that when her mother dressed her, she would have known the condition it would be in after days of picking raspberries.

Perhaps the most shocking mismatch between child and her working conditions is one that Hine did not overtly emphasize (as he sometimes did in other child labor images). Laura stands barefoot amongst the bushes. Hine probably assumed that his audience would have been well aware of the barbs and thorns that make raspberry picking so treacherous. Yet, little Laura does it in bare legs and feet.

In the caption, Hine reinforced for the viewer the substance of the ideas communicated in the image. He drew no conclusion, but rather simply stated facts he had gathered (which is so much different from how editors treated his images). He relied on the visual evidence, carefully composed and presented, to communicate what was to him the obvious evil of child labor. As the first social documentarian — he called his style “social photography” and later the “human document” — Hine recorded what he saw and simultaneously testified to its veracity. His captions are largely a presentation of facts gathered near the time when he made the image.

Hine added yet more poignancy to the composition by quoting the little girl in the caption (rather than making an editorial comment). Laura enthusiastically reports her productivity. Like many children, her aspiration is to be grown-up, if only so she can work harder and contribute more to her family’s income, a sweet sentiment that evokes pathos. By allowing the child to speak, Hine crafted an, argument that emphasized this selfless innocence. In the face of Social Darwinist apathy (or enmity), Hine sought to entice viewers into a feeling of parental protection.

Again, he faced a tough crowd; the wealthy industrialist, so fond of apocryphal rags-to-riches stories, would probably have been patted Laura on the head, praised her industry, and sent her back into the fields to keep trying. Hine succeeded in changing minds with his photographs of children in new industrial situations (like the textile mills) and in presentations of visual evidence of the damage inflicted on America’s youth by mining, the energy source of the second industrial revolution. As noted above, he enjoyed far less success in persuading his contemporaries of the exploitation of children in traditional farm labor. Most still saw farm work as healthy and beneficial for children.

Kate Sampsell-Willmann

Lewis Hine

I am Joe Manning, of the Lewis Hine Project. I am an author and historian. I have been working on this project for about five years. It involves tracking down and interviewing descendants of some of the Hine child laborers, so I can uncover their life stories. I have been successful for more than 200 child laborers so far. I post most of my results on my website:
www.morningsonmaplestreet.com/lewishine.html

I find this discussion fascinating. I am currently reading Kate Sampsell-Willman's wonderful book. It is interesting, from my perspective, to now know a little about what kinds of lives these children were living at the time, where they came from, and how the rest of their lives turned out; and then to compare that to the impressions we get about them when we first see the Hine photos. It is a revelation to understand how little information we get from the photos and the captions, and to see how our assumptions about them are often so completely wrong. Oddly enough though, I have found that, in some cases, the children's personalities, as described to me by their children or grandchildren, turned out to be very similar to what I presumed when I saw their faces. I don't think that their life outcomes should be factored into the analysis of Hine and his motives and techniques, but it is nevertheless very moving to find out what happened to them and how their children's lives turned out as well.

kswillmann's picture

Oral Histories

reply to Joe Manning

Welcome to the forum Joe. Thank you for participating, and for the compliment.

As Hine historians, the work of this forum and the oral histories that Manning collect can complement each other and add to the usefulness of Lewis Hine's images as primary sources of the data Hine collected. Whereas this forum intends to educate scholars and teaching faculty in the use of Hine images in teaching and research, Manning’s collection of oral histories and genealogies regarding the subjects of Hine’s child labor images can be a place where we can test our reading of the photographs. In such an exercise, there would be two different skills at work: reading non-written texts and collecting oral histories. Both are excellent ways to discover the details that bring our work to life. And, in the case of Lewis Hine, Manning’s fine work allows the historian to approach the same subject from two very different perspectives: the records of the person who recorded the image—Hine—and the memories of the children and grandchildren of the subjects themselves.

Both techniques require specialized skills. The purpose here is to focus on the photograph, but Manning’s growing database offers the historian yet another lens into the period under discussion and the lives of the children Hine documented. Most importantly, given the sketchy manuscript record of Hine’s life, oral histories such as the collected by Mornings on Maple Street, help historians illuminate the moment when distinct stories connect, the moment Hine made a photograph.

A very valid reason for a someone to acquire the skill to read an image is to use it as a primary source of what it depicts. Stepping out of one's comfort zone--the written manuscript record--will allow the historian to dovetail the information found in the image with the oral legacies of the subject in the image. Utilizing all of the records available only enhances our understanding of history. Too often one reads a new text in which the author has neglected to take advantage of the information available from photographs, oral histories, folk traditions, music, or other non-traditional sources. One wonders whether Ph.D.-granting institutions should require use of alternative primary sources at some stage in students' education.

jkemeritus's picture

how i might use the photo in teaching

i have thoroughly enjoyed the discussion because as a visual sociologist and urban community activist i have used similar visual methods for reaching both pedagogical as well as progressive political goals. i don't' agree about semiotics as a distraction from the forum but recognize that it would lead in very different (equally fruitful) directions. that being said, i frequently use hines' and other 'historical' images in my classes so that students can address the questions being raised in this forum, so what i might do is have the students comment and then have them read how 'experts' think about the same hines images. a few semesters ago it was the posed iwo jima flag raising image, then it was the questions regarding 'the falling soldier' image from the spanish civil war, today perhaps it would be ernest withers 'i am a man' photo so that students would consider the image taker and the image taker's motives, etc as changing the meaning (sorry for the semiotic) of the image for them as well as understanding how images, like writing, can be composed in an argumentative fashion. one of my own applied visual efforts was displaying images of an afro-american neighborhood to show that it wasn't as people thought all such neighborhoods were in the 60s and 70s. (some of these can be found at: http://maci.arts.ualberta.ca/reflexive-frames/contributor.php?subid=Jero...) similar to the children's television workshop's creativity vis a vis sesame street and bill cosby's "bill cosby show." the images (as well as other visual tours) also helped banks to un-red-line the community. today i use my images of islamic spaces in a related way. i would also offer to you the possibilty of counter-posing hines' and other progressive work work with those who created negative images for opposite evil purposes (images of poverty, immigrants, jews, blacks, etc were also vivid in the progressive era)

kswillmann's picture

contrasting images

Reply to jkemeritus

Thank you for taking the time to comment on our experiment here. It's always good to hear that people are using photographs in their teaching, especially when considering the "image taker's motives."

Unfortunately, there are many examples of contrasting images, where the people depicted in the photograph are represented as less than equal to the photographer. Hine stands out in this generation as the exception, which is why we are looking at him. There are examples of subtle othering in the work of many progressive era muckrakers, although these images were nonetheless still very much in the service of reform. Then there are the truly evil images from the same period. Lynching photography leaps to mind. We'll be examining quite a few of LWH's images during this forum. I would invite anyone to add images that would encourage an analysis from contrasting juxtaposition.

Also, I would suggest taking a look at the JGAPE article that inspired this forum for an analysis of the contrast between Hine's treatment of migration and Alfred Stieglitz's. While in no sense evil, Stieglitz photographed migrants and workers as aesthetically interesting, not for reform. Too many teach using Stieglitz's masterpiece "The Steerage" as an illustration of immigration because it is a text that originated in the period when Ellis Island was in its heyday and it features people who fit our 21st-century imagined idea of what immigrants looked like. It is not, however, a document in the perceived canon of early-20th-century US immigration, despite what it looks like. Stieglitz's boat was sailing from New York, and the folks in third class were going home to Europe. We have a photographic-informed idea of what immigration should look like, so when we see a picture that conforms to our preconception, we use it out of context.

I am hoping scholars who weigh in on this forum will learn to use images as sources, not just as illustrations. That we know people went home to Europe while still dressed in traditional clothes tells us something about assimilation and those who resisted it. With research, we can look at the document and see what is really in it, not what we want to see. As you point out, knowing the author's intent (or political perspective; perspective being more than where one points the camera) is paramount in that process.

Linda Gordon, DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY AS AN INTERPRETIVE ART

Comment on Kate Sampsell Willman’s article …

August 15, 2010

Kate Sampsell-Willmann’s fine 2008 article, which was only a foretaste of her superb book on Lewis Hine, offers numerous rich lines of analysis. She discusses the philosophical and moral influences on Hine, the personal background that shaped him, his attitudes toward immigrants and workers, his photographic approach, his conception of evidence and the documentary representation of social “reality,” and, as if all that were not enough, she compares his work to that of Jacob Riis and Alfred Stieglitz and thereby so reveals yet more of his contribution. What I have to say here is primarily supplementary—with one exception: I want to take wrestle with Sampsell-Willmann’s notion of what documentary photography’s must do to be authentic.

Sampsell-Willmann argues convincingly for Hine’s affinity with pragmatist philosophy, and particularly the thought of William James. I want to reflect on another affinity, one that Sampsell-Willmann also acknowledges, with the Left wing of Progressive activism. While Progressivism consisted of many trends, its most progressive and most activist advocates campaigned for greater state responsibility in guaranteeing minimal social welfare and social justice. These advocates believed that documenting economic and social facts was basic to their campaign, and for that reason they looked to expert researchers to bring these facts to the public and to politicians. Progressives like WEB Du Bois and Florence Kelley pioneered social-survey technique as an integral part of their advocacy. A number of scholars have identified a unique women’s political culture within this Left Progressivism: unique both because of the women’s gendered socialization toward charity, often through a maternalist stance toward the poor; and unique also because women, being disfranchised, had to develop extraparliamentary strategies and tactics to exert political pressure on governments.

Lewis Hine was a perfect exemplar of this Left Progressivism. Committed both to state responsibility and to documenting economic and social facts, he was equally committed to the value of expertise. He was a central contributor to the main publication of this approach, starting in 1908 with Charities and the Commons, continuing when it morphed into Survey and, later, Survey Graphic. He worked with the National Child Labor Committee and the National Consumers League, quintessential Left Progressive advocacy organizations. Indeed, he was so imbedded in these networks that one could call him a member, despite his male sex, of the women’s political culture.

Of course Hine was also influenced by photographer Jacob Riis. Notwithstanding Sampsell-Willmann’s telling critique of Riis, it is important to register that he too was a documentary photographer (although that word did not exist in his time), in the sense that he sought to inform and to provoke social change. Although Riis believed that social problems were caused by immorality and that social improvement could best be achieved through moral reform, he was nevertheless documenting what he saw in the interest of reform.

Of greater interest is the fact that Hine influenced later documentary photography. There is a direct line connecting him to the next great documentary photographer, Dorothea Lange, and to her partner in that work, Paul Schuster Taylor. (Disclosure of self-interest: I’ve written about Lange and Taylor.) Hine and Taylor were both friends of Paul Kellogg, editor of Survey; Lange and Taylor saw Hine’s work regularly; Hine and Lange both photographed for various New Deal agencies. In 1938 Hine, then without work, broke, and on relief, applied to Lange’s boss Roy Stryker for a job with the Farm Security Administration, but Stryker—in a mean-spirited and boorish decision—turned him down. It is a disgrace that Hine was left to live his last years in extreme poverty.

Hine deserves out attention today, if only because of his positive view of immigrants. They appear as solid, hard-working, forward-looking future citizens. As Sampsell-Willmann notes, they often look directly at the camera, displaying no diffidence. (And Willmann demolishes the ridiculous claim that not publishing the subjects’ names de-individualized them. In fact, when Lange worked for the federal government she was instructed not to collect her subjects’ names, on the grounds that doing so would violate their privacy.) Hine’s attitude toward workers was equally sympathetic but, I think, not quite so optimistic, even when the workers are immigrants. Concerned above all with child labor, Hine’s early vision concentrated for the most part on the exploitation and victimization of workers; they frequently seem quite wretched. In this respect his workers are often victims, and his perspective fit the Progressive attitude that middle-class reformers needed to advocate for workers. As the 1930s Popular-Front style shifted to depicting workers as brawny and heroic (and women as salt-of-the-earth mothers), Hine’s view also changed, particularly when he photographed the men who built the Empire State building. With that exception, however, and without an opportunity like Lange’s assignment to photograph farmworkers, he was not able to produce many images of men and women actively working. This is partly because he never developed an interactive approach to his subjects, as Lange did—conversing with them and capturing them in motion, in conversation, or in active relations with each other.

As Sampsell-Willmann explains, Hine faced the dilemma of showing his subjects simultaneously as individuals and as social types. Both views were necessary. If the image showed only a type, that would be insulting; if only an individual, the image would not serve a social-reform objective. For example, to win support for labor reform Hine had to show workers grimy and tattered, although they would likely have preferred to be shown in their Sunday best—and were shown that way when they went to portrait studios to have family photos made. But the stillness, the inertness of many of his portraits, and his posing groups of workers in lines facing the camera, made his images tilt toward presenting his subjects primarily as types, as exhibits to be displayed as visual statistics. It is possible that no single photograph can resolve this double-bind, that only a collection of photos can do so.

The dilemma presents itself to all documentary photographers—Hine was not unusual in grappling with the issue, and I doubt that his class background or experiences of poverty made it any easier for him. I found myself unconvinced by Willmann’s claim that Hine’s self-image as a worker, as a man behind a machine, as a sweated laborer who “mirrored the lives of the industrial workers he documented.” The contention that Hine was somehow closer to his subjects and thus more “honest” about them than, say, the upper-class Stieglitz fits the Progressive notion that “the facts” could speak for themselves, but by now it is clear that that is not the case. Hine was a reformer with a passionate desire for social justice; this is more important, I think, than his class position or self-image.

The individual-versus-social type dilemma brings us to one of the thorniest and least resolved debates about documentary photography: when is a documentary photograph authentic, truthful, “honest” in Sampsell-Willmann’s words. During the New Deal government photographers were criticized for even the most minor alteration of a negative, such as brushing away a thumb that seemed to spoil a composition or moving a cow skull a few feet so as to show it next to other evidence of a drought. These criticisms are on their face ludicrous, since all photographers redesign their negatives in all sorts of ways in the darkroom (or on computers today)—lightening some areas, darkening others, cropping out irrelevant or distracting items, for examples. But I believe there is a deeper misunderstanding behind the anxiety about whether documentary photographs are authentic, the idea that they are objective and present “reality” to the viewer. It seems to me far more reasonable and more productive to regard any photo as we regard a painting, as the creation of the photographer, carrying his or her perspective. Photography is as interpretive as any other personal expression. We see, after all, with our brains, not our eyes, and our brains are constructed by all our experiences. Anyone with a camera decides what to show, from what angle, in what light, at what camera speed, with what frame, with what focus, etc.

I wonder if Sampsell-Willmann could have followed further Hine’s own thinking on this question. In the words that her editor selected to introduce her article, Hine argued that “In fact, [the picture] is often more effective than the reality would have been, because, in the picture, the non-essential and conflicting interests have been eliminated.” Dorothea Lange had a somewhat mystical approach to the problem of authenticity. She believed that through her camera she could see into the psyches of her subjects, and that by penetrating beneath a surface she could get at a truth that was deeper, more truthful, than were facts available at first glance. Taken literally, her notion that she had a kind of Xray vision seems to me absurd. But I recognize it as her spiritual way of saying something accurate about the role of documentary photography.

The debate about authenticity and objectivity may never be solved. It continues today whether the subject is literature or history or journalism or photography. Unfortunately today many people continue to worry more about whether a photographer has asked a subject to take off his hat or look toward her child than about whether the photographer’s interpretation illuminates truths heretofore hidden. Some of this concern comes from a confusion of documentary photography with photojournalism, some from increased public awareness of how easily and undetectably images can be altered. We need to get straight what documentary photography has been and is: overwhelmingly often an art form inspired by concern for social justice and eagerness to participate in social change. It aims to see and show beneath the common-sense assumptions that so often prevent us from seeing the actual relationships that create both human and ecological erosion.

Kate Sempsell-Willmann, “No fakery of any kind”

First, I thank Linda Gordon for participating in this forum and starting us on such a strong footing (and for the personal compliment on my book). Thank you also for the statement: "It seems to me far more reasonable and more productive to regard any photo as we regard a painting, as the creation of the photographer, carrying his or her perspective." Gordon's comment has launched this forum by raising two trenchant questions: the first, How was Lewis Hine situated in the Progressive Left? Her placement of him in a "feminized" reform tradition is provocative, and I hope we can discuss this at length. However, since we are just beginning, I propose we start with her other question: What makes a social documentary photograph (hereafter SDP) "authentic"?

I do not mean to launch another exceptionalism, but historians do tend to treat photographs differently than they do other sources. If we are to discuss authenticity in SDP, we need to know something about the author. Hine said, and Linda Gordon emphasizes, “Photographs don’t lie, but liars may photograph” (1909). Photography, as Gordon also emphasizes, is not unmediated reality. A human being framed and determined the time to make the image, so I believe that good historical practice would lead us to use the images in context with their creation, to use them as statements of a thinking person. And yes, I am deliberately raising the well-trod-upon flag of phenomenology and asking us to move away from ontological or presentist readings of images (sorry Roland Barthes; we’re resurrecting the author). What mélange of physical, cultural, political, and technological perspectives went into making the image? For this, we need to look at the point of creation, the photographer.

I think, before we get there, however, we should discuss what makes any given photograph a social document. Down this road madness lies, or at least the speed bumps of confusion, contradiction, and jargon. I hope we can avoid obfuscation and come to some consensus. I propose we start with Paul Strand, “Blind Woman, New York,” 1916 (Fig. 1).


Figure 1

Lewis Hine was Paul Strand’s first photography teacher. Strand attended the Ethical Culture School, where Hine was teacher of both the natural sciences and photography. Hine introduced Strand to Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession while on a school trip to 291 (Stieglitz’s famed photography gallery). Strand quickly joined the Photo-Secession and made its ideology his own.

I put this question to my undergraduates: is Figure 1 an example of social documentary photography? My students almost invariably say yes without hesitation. It looks like an SDP. However, I’m always happy with the ones who hesitate. Notwithstanding its date, location, subject matter, and closeness of the photographer in time and education with Lewis Hine, the photograph is definitely not an SDP. Why not? Strand made this image while still a flag-waving Photo-Secessionist.

“Blind Woman” is a straight image, perhaps printed a little heavily, but Strand generally faithfully reproduced, in print form, the gray tonal gradients he recorded on film. Furthermore, it lacks an overly dramatic manipulation of the negative, print, or, indeed, mise-en-scène. We can assume that “Blind Woman” is also a street photograph, one made in natural light of a person not known personally to the photographer beforehand. It is of a “found” subject, one who could be used to illustrate a “type” of social function/dysfunction. The point is, however, that the viewer cannot tell by looking at the image  whether it can be included in the canon of SDP. One needs to examine the author. In doing so, historians can learn to use photographs analytically and as primary sources in their scholarship and classroom.

Although Paul Strand did become a practitioner of SDP in the late 1930s—when he became Left-politicized—in 1916, he held tight to the  Stieglitz doctrine that photography, to be art (and therefore worthwhile), must not be used for any “practical” purpose (including earning a living—this proved to be the breaking point that caused Edward Steichen to leave the Photo-Secession). Yes, all photographs are documents, but “Blind Woman,” despite the fact that we can mine very interesting and exact detail regarding licensed beggars in 1916 New York from the image, is not SDP. When its genesis is considered in its proper context as a product of an aesthetic ideology actively opposed to claiming any social use for its output, the image becomes a disquieting and ambiguous visual paranomasia (if you will excuse the synæsthetic usage). “Blind Woman” looks like one thing but is really something altogether different. Strand was not seeking social justice, even though his photographic vision edged him onto the same turf as those who were. Strand, like Riis, became a stylistic link between generations, but, also like Riis, not an ideological one.

Any photographer’s methodology and any image’s raison d’être are fundamental to establishing a photograph’s usefulness to the historian. This forum is intended to help scholars move away from the limited “this is what that looked like,” purely illustrative use. Learning to read an image in its context, or, to put it another way, to use it as a substantive primary source, will give your writing an extra dimension and will help students view images more intelligently. To do this, we have to attempt to know the photographer. Every SDP was made with a certain intent, and I believe the relevant intent is not solely limited to a desire to correct a social wrong. This line of inquiry brings up the subject of Jacob Riis, but more on that later.

Of Strand’s “Blind Woman,” we know that the woman is blind because Strand tells us and because she herself advertises the fact on a sign that dominates the image. We don’t know whether the image was posed. Perhaps by researching her beggar’s license we can discover her “qualifications” for what was her occupation, but Strand’s title yields little to the historian.

Photography requires seeing. Strand stood very close to this woman to take her picture. That we suspect she did not know that the photographer was taking her picture is quite disturbing. If unaware, she becomes a visual device intended to accentuate with irony the limitations of human sight, playing on and inverting the kind of eye-contact interaction so prevalent in Hineographs and the work of Dorothea Lange, as Gordon points out. The image can be read both as a Photo-Secessionist statement of inauthenticity in photography [see also Hippolyte Bayard’s “Self Portrait as a Drowned Man” (1840)] and as a statement of how little the human subject of an art photograph concerned the Photo-Secession. Diametrically opposed to Lewis Hine’s similar-looking pictures, the woman is an object to be used by the photographer to represent something completely foreign to the details of her existence. “Blind Woman” is abstract, and brilliantly so. She is the emblem of not-seeing in a photographer’s world.

The Photographer As Author

Straight photographs offer two sorts of evidence that we should be careful to distinguish: first, they can be examined for specific detail, to help us learn what was (especially material culture). We can, with research, determine if Strand’s “Blind Woman” belongs in this category of straight images. This is a fairly straightforward way of using historical images (although the increasing sophistication of image-editing software will cause a problem for future historians).

But, more importantly (and more controversially), our second use relies on the credibility of the narrative content of a photographer’s image, on its being what it “professes” to be. The historian can gather visual evidence of the facts of child labor at a certain place and time from Hine’s photographs. Yes, detail extraction is very important, but the historian should regard the photograph as composed (and, in some cases, edited by) the photographer. We should not accept the narrative of stand-alone image; we believe in the credibility of the content based on the credibility of the author. What Hine (and Lange) intended for us to find in the images is integral to reading them. There is only one way to discover this intent (it is not mystically transmitted through a photograph); put the image in context with intellectual historical research about the photographer.

Hine, unlike most important 20th-century photographers, left very little manuscript evidence, so the task for the historian is harder. But, like others after him, Hine was a witness, and the things he photographed were not fabrications or staged recreations. He became as much of an authority on the content of his images as he was on the craft of photography and its usage in social science data collection. A quote from Hine on the importance of getting pure “data” is indicative of Hine’s dedication to non-sensationalist social science method. He always kept in mind that the credibility of his images, and therefore their value as instruments, hinged on his own credibility:

More significant, however, was one thing that made me extra careful about getting data 100% pure when possible. Because the proponents of the use of children for work sought to discredit the data, and especially the photographs, we used, —I was compelled to use the utmost care in making them fire-proof. One argument they did use, “Hine used deception to get his child-labor photos; naturally he would not be relied upon to tell the truth about what he found,” —so the Committee had [to] assure them and the public that they, in turn, always checked up on Hine to make sure he could be relied upon,—all they could say. [See Fig. 2 below]

The deception was his deceptive tactics to gain entry into child-labor mills, not his setting up compositions to fit a prearranged script about what ought to be there. Ultimately, it was not on the NCLC's assurances that both the public and politicians relied, but Hine's own ethic of producing “no fakery of any kind,” notwithstanding the fact that his photographs were well and truly made to promote a political and social agenda. It is to the history of social science that we should look in order to tackle the question of inherent authenticity—or rather accuracy and historical reliability—of  Hine’s child labor images. Hine was a social scientist before the term was coined; he called his work sociological, and we can recognize it as social science data collection to support the thesis that child labor was harmful to the child, the family, the community, and the nation. Gordon is correct to compare Hine to Dorothea Lange, another social science investigator.

Hine was long-term member of a well educated, and organized reform movement employing techniques that came to be understood as social science methodology. Think of “to document” in terms of supporting your own research rather than a journalistic use that requires far less intellectual rigor and “fire-proof” accuracy. Hine’s very professionalism makes his photographs more reliable to the historian now (as they were to the progressive era policy maker then). Hine was successful in making his images “fire-proof.” Well buttressed with careful notes, written reports, and witness statements, his images persuaded then and still do now.

Furthermore, in stark contrast with Strand’s “Blind Woman,” there is a level of subjective connection—a conversation—between Hine and his subjects, even the littlest ones (a state of communication that is also identifiable in Lange’s images). Most SD photographers (as opposed to those whom history has judged as purely fine artists or sensationalists) have distinguished their own work in a remarkably consistent way; they emphasize personal engagement with one’s subject as the common denominator. To me, this quality falls along the line between treating the person in the image as object or as subject.

Jacob Riis

I begin the SDP timeline, some argue inaccurately, with Lewis Hine and not Jacob Riis. Although Riis made photographic documents for a social reason, his temperament towards the folks he was photographing was on a whole different wavelength than Hine’s. Riis falls somewhere on the objectifying side of the object-subject continuum I just invented. The people in his pictures were products of the system he wanted to change, victims without agency in their world, intentionally othered by the photographer. Riis did not stop to talk to them; they gaze back with shock or hostility, their existence in New York having been arrogated in a sudden and violent explosion of magnesium. (Hine’s wrote sympathetically about showering his Ellis Island subjects with magnesium and burning his own eyebrows off.)

Again, Hine was a social scientist and approached the subject in accord with his training. He neither condescended to nor stigmatized the people whose images he recorded. As the founding mind behind a fully formed (rather than nascent and idiosyncratic) SDP, Hine belongs as much to the early history of the New Deal as he does to middle and late Progressivism.

To put the debate in an even wider context, Mathew Brady’s stable of photographers made straight images for a social/political purpose—the victory of the Union and the end of slavery (see especially Alexander Gardner, whose pictures of a defeated and surreal Richmond were among the first photographs acquired by the MoMA, and whose pictures of the dead at Gettysburg were less than honest—see "The Case of the Moved Body" at the Library of Congress' American Memory)—but no serious scholar is ready to call those innovative documentary images SDP. Riis might be the art-historical aesthetic link between Brady, et al. and Hine, but Hine’s very substantive differences in method, style, professionalism, research ethic, and social and political ideology put him at the beginning of a new category of social agitation, Riis at the tail end of another. Riis, who belonged to the nineteenth century, was a journalist, a muckraker, a sensationalist exposer (or rather exposé-ist); twentieth-century Hine was an ideologue.

Gordon is right that Dorothea Lange is a pioneering figure, albeit not the first, in the evolution of SDP. The same cannot be said about Riis. Hine was in practice closer to the FSA photographers, and Dorothea Lange especially, than he was to Riis. Nowhere does Riis engage with his subjects, those who lived in the tenements. His images of people are never flattering and contain no clue as to their pasts, futures, abilities, personalities, or humanity. In fact, he sought out the most degraded (from his perspective) to use only as objects to shock the middle class out of complacency. He sought to make a point about sanitary conditions and their effect on creating moral turpitude. Conversely, to Hine’s quote from the letter in Fig. 2:

… it is the only way I can illustrate my thesis that the human spirit is the big thing after all. With regard to this emphasis, I think we should apply the same standard of veracity for the photograph that we do for the written work. Even in art, poetic license shouldn’t slop over into yellow journalism.

Riis’s rhetoric was homiletically informed, racist to the core, disdainful of personal involvement (he was not even present when some “his” iconic images were made), and more concerned about the political outcome than the immigrants who people his photographs. The gospel according to Hine differs: don’t make it up; don’t be sloppy; don’t be sensationalist; don’t forget “that the human spirit is the big thing after all.”

A healthy discussion about Jacob Riis will invigorate this forum, and I stand ready to have my conclusions well and thoroughly invalidated.

Moderator Plea:

We are not here to evaluate the ontological or phenomenological nature of truth or the reality of photographs (ye gods, it’s time to move away from that). We wish to read images, in a sense, archeologically. The photograph is an artifact containing much information about its author and what its author professes to depict. Accessing this narrative is our prime task. To quote our editor, John McClymer, “We can usefully discuss what we can hope to learn from them, how to look at them, what other historical materials they illumine and what other historical materials help illumine them.” The semiotics and metaphysics of representational/mechanically-assisted art are issues unto themselves. In this forum, we hope to make Hine, and SDP itself, accessible to scholars and teaching faculty in a framework of intellectual, cultural, and social history. To accomplish that, we have to start with why and how Hine made the images he did, not the valid but inexorably nebulous discussion of “the real.”

Jacob Riis

It is difficult to disagree wholeheartedly with the observations about Riis. Nevertheless, it is worth adding that while Riis does not match Hine's degree of personal empathy with those photographed, there is a structural understanding of "the other half" in some of his photographs. At first sight, the scenes Riis photographed seem to be uncared for and signs of degeneration. Yet the rubbish and the bulky sacks that appear in a number of photographs from "How the Other Half Lives" are also signs of a rag-picking economy, however far down the economic scale, that signify an outside to the world of the ghetto. And in the photograph of two young girls on the steps of a run-down house, the shadowy figures down the alley are less threats to the girls (that being a common interpretation) than the source of whatever income reaches the household. For a more extended reading of Riis's photographs, please go to www.city-sites.org > Essays > Lower East Side.

kswillmann's picture

Reply below

Please see the reply posted below the photograph.

Kate Sampsell-Willmann

Baxter Street Alley in Mulberry Bend

· Title: Baxter Street Alley in Mulberry Bend

· Creator(s): Riis, Jacob A. (Jacob August), 1849-1914 <http://www.loc.gov/pictures/related/?fi=name&q=Riis%2C%20Jacob%20A.%20%28Jacob%20August%29%2C%201849-1914> , photographer

· Date Created/Published: [ca. 1888 or 1889]

· Medium: 1 photographic print.

· Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-12571 (b&w film copy neg.)

· Rights Advisory: Rights status not evaluated. For general information see "Copyright and Other Restrictions..." (http://lcweb.loc.gov/rr/print/195_copr.html).

· Call Number: LOT 6300 [item] [P&P]

· Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

· Notes: Title and other information transcribed from unverified, old caption card data.

· Format: Photographic prints--1880-1890. <http://www.loc.gov/pictures/related/?fi=format&q=Photographic%20prints--1880-1890.>

· Collections: Miscellaneous Items in High Demand <http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/cph/>

· Bookmark This Record: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002710255/

kswillmann's picture

Baxter Alley Ragpickers

I apologize for the delay in responding to Douglas Tallack’s engaging post, in which he refers to the photograph posted here, “Baxter Street Alley in Mulberry Bend.” I disagree with those who would read the scenes depicted in Riis’s images as “to be uncared for and [showing] signs of degeneration.” Wealth, power, and comfort distanced the viewer in Riis’s time (and in ours) from the areas where the poor lived. That distance colors our interpretations. I am surprised to hear that “a common interpretation” of the image regards, first, the men in background as “shadowy” and second, as “threats” to the girls in the foreground.

According to Kay Davis, “Riis set up an office in Mulberry Bend, a tenement neighborhood across from police headquarters. Each day he traveled through the neighborhood, witnessing firsthand the cramped, dirty quarters and inadequate sanitation” (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma01/davis/photography/riis/reporter.html. Accessed Jan. 30, 2011). Riis described Mulberry Bend it in How Other Half Lives: “Where Mulberry Street crooks like an elbow within hail of the old depravity of the Five Points, is “the Bend,” foul core of New York’s slums,” considered the epicenter of crime, dilapidation, and filth in turn-of-the-century New York City. “Half a dozen blocks up Mulberry Street there is a ragpicker’s settlement, a sort of overflow from ‘the Bend,’ that exists to-day in all its pristine nastiness,” Baxter Alley included, one presumes (Section VI: "The Bend"). Riis sought to expose conditions, especially there, to support housing reform.

This image, like many of Riis’s, does not, however, necessarily depict a filthy place riddled with shady figures. In fact, the word that best describes the condition of the alleyway that people obviously call home is tidy. The pavement is stained, and there is one errant piece of wood to the right, but the day’s “pickings” are bundled tightly and stowed neatly to one side. Both girls are carefully dressed in clean clothes (noting the white kerchief worn by the girl at the top of the stairs), and their hair is neatly combed, parted, and pulled back out of their faces. Sometime recently, the alleyway had been swept. This is not squalor but is rather a picture of people making the best of their challenging environment.

The expressions on the children’s faces differ, but neither indicates fear, suffering, or living in “pristine nastiness.” The upper (older?) child rests her hands on a bundle around her waist (firewood perhaps?) while the smaller one, on one knee reminiscent of a curtsey, is smiling shyly. They apparently were working to move firewood up the stairs, the burning of which in such close quarters was most definitely unhealthy, but the apparent condition of the children is healthy, happy, and cared-for.

Tallack is absolutely correct that the rubbish sacks are “signs of a rag-picking economy, however far down the economic scale, that signify an outside to the world of the ghetto.” These are working people who are not irrevocably tied to a deterministic cycle of poverty. The female children tend the house while the men do the heavy lifting, as is the case in many cultures. The so-called “shadowy figures” are workingmen. Given middle class fear of the foreign-born working classes in the GAPE, Riis might have also perceived the men as a threat, but the children do not. The men took a break from their labor, and the fellow in the doorway looked out, their attention probably caught by the presence of the photographer. Rather than being a threat to the girls, they could have been protecting them from the interloper.

Reading the photograph this way, however, does not establish how Riis perceived this alleyway or what he intended to communicate when he made the image. That it does not appear in How The Other Half Lives and indeed is not a usual example of Riis’s message might indicate that it did not represent sufficiently dire circumstances to fit Riis’s idea of a text that would urge change (for example, contrast it with “Bottle Alley,” which did appear in the book as indicative of “The Bend” [it can found here in the public domain: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bottle_Alley.jpg ]). Whereas Hine would have used the image of a smiling child as leverage to move hearts, Riis’s body of work is not full of children who are cheery despite being poor.
Kate Sampsell-Willmann

kswillmann's picture

Date of letter in Fig. 2

It should be noted that Hine sent a copy of the 1933 letter in figure 2 to Elizabeth McCausland in 1938 while preparing for his Riverside Museum retrospective. The letter can be found in the McCausland Papers at the Archives of American Art.

The emotional impact of Hine's photographs


Title: Human Junk. A product of the mill. "Ben workin fer 10 years. Began when I was six years old for 5 cents a day. Lately I was workin $1.25 a day but got to spittin blood and had to quit." He was truely [sic] "scrapped" and of little use to himself or the world. Roy Hammett, Spartanberg [sic], S.C.

Location: Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Date Created/Published: 1912 May.

Medium: 1 photographic print.

Part of: Photographs from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.)

Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-nclc-02548 (color digital file from b&w original print)

Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication.

Call Number: LOT 7479, v. 5, no. 2962 [P&P]

Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA


Even as we apply these techniques to reading Hine's photographs, we need to monitor our own emotional reactions. Hine distained the maudlin, but his commitment to showing his contemporaries the ugly realities of child labor and its effects on the children themselves led him to develop an array of techniques for making the viewer feel something of what Hine himself felt and something of what his subjects were feeling. Sometimes our reactions can be deeply personal as well as powerful. This is the case with me and the image of the young mule driver. When my father was thirteen he went to work in the antracite mines near Scranton driving mules. I cannot look at that photograph without imagining my father at that same age. As with many veterans of military service, my father rarely talked of his childhood underground. All I knew as a child was that it had been terrible. I cannot banish those feelings. I do have to be aware of the ways in which they can cause me to attend to certain aspects of the photograph and perhaps miss others.

As an exercise, consider the image above. A teenaged boy stands on a dirt road, a cigarette dangling from his lips. His arms also dangle as his jacket sleeves do not reach his wrists. He is wearing knickerbockers. Long pants signified that one was no longer a boy. As with several other portraits we will discuss, the boy simply stares into the camera, squinting into the bright sun. Hine wanted the sun to be over his shoulder to avoid glare.

Only the boy and his shadow are in focus. He is somewhere in Spartanburg, South Carolina, but there are no visible clues as to where. Indeed, while he could be anywhere, we can also read the image as suggesting that he is nowhere.

The title provides additional details that change the way I look at the photograph. Once I know that the boy was spitting up blood, I react to the cigarette more viscerally, perhaps far more so than Hine could have imagined. Young Roy Hammett had breathed in microscopic cotton fibers from the time he was six. By sixteen he was suffering from either tuberculosis or severe obstructive lung disease. Either would inexorably kill him. Because I have had friends and relatives who died of emphysema, I cannot put aside thoughts of the suffering that awaited this child. Again, I may be reacting more strongly than Hine would have anticipated.

On the other hand, I am experiencing the emotions Hine sought to evoke. He wanted viewers of the image to share his anger, horror, and indignation. The title "human junk" lacks any trace of subtlety. So does "'scrapped.'" "Of little use to himself or the world" might as well be the voice of doom pronouncing Roy Hammett's fate. Most of Hine's titles simply provide information. Some, as in this case, permit the subject to speak. Hine only rarely interjected his own views. Here we encounter Hine at his most blunt and most judgmental.

Hine paired this image with "Other Junk. A pile of scrap machinery outside the Carolina Cotton Mill. This kind cost money. Who cares about the other kind?" Location: Spartanburg, South Carolina. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/nclc/item/ncl2004003497/PP/ It was also taken in May of 1912.

"Who cares about the other kind?" point us back to "Human Junk." Who did care about Roy Hammett? There is no one else in the photograph. Presumably he had a family. Had he been an orphan, he would not have gone to work in the Carolina Cotton Mill at age six. He would have gone to school, learned his three Rs, perhaps been adopted by a family that could have given him a chance in life. So, even though he is completely alone in the photograph, even though Hine sounds his death knell, there almost certainly was a family. They may well have cared desparately about Roy. What they could not do was help. They had needed Roy's help, his $1.25 a day, his $0.05 a day when he should have been starting first grade. If he had to go to work at six, he may have been the oldest child. What about his brothers and sisters? Would they too wind up as "human junk"?

Because Hine's subjects are subjects, our reactions to his photographs are a complex mix of insight and emotion. He wanted us to see the human waste and he wanted us to care.

The emotional impact

In light of the fact that Hine's subjects are subjects, our responses to his photos are a mind boggling intermingle of understanding and feeling. He needed us to see the human waste and he needed us to give a second thought. He ware mens golf pants in this picture.

rstraw's picture

Emotional Response

I am so happy to see this forum online. I am writing a book on using historical photos to teach American History and the comments here have proven to be very enlightening to me. One of the issues I struggle with when I [use] these photos and others in class is how to elicit an emotional response from students. It is hard for them to separate the real from the unreal since they are inundated with images from T.V. and movies that are sometimes set in a historical context. I struggle to find a way to help them understand that these were real people with real problems. I'm enjoying this forum immensely. My own research interest used to be in coal mining in Appalachia so I'm anxious to see what the forum people have to say about those photos.

Joe Manning

This is Joe Manning, of the Lewis Hine Project. I was able to uncover some details about Roy's life. You can see the story at this link:
http://www.morningsonmaplestreet.com/royhammett1.html

kswillmann's picture

Reply to Joe Manning on Roy Hammett

Thanks to Manning’s research, we know that Hammett, born in 1893, was 19 when Hine took his picture in 1912. His clothes belong to someone much younger. According to the newspaper article, Hammett had 12 siblings at the time of his death, so to answer McClymer’s question, Hammett did have a family, but Roy himself doesn’t show up on a census until 1920. He clearly worked for years in the mills in order to become so ill so young. His siblings were scattered across the South, and his father died sometime before 1927, leaving a widow and a lot of fatherless children. What emerges is a picture of a large family existing on the fringe of recorded American history. Had the image been made in 1932 rather than 1912, one could imagine Roy Hammett as about to jump in a boxcar and seek his fortune elsewhere. He and too many like him were marginalized by poverty, lack of education, and exploited labor. But, the big question is, does Manning’s research change how we perceive Roy Hammett?

 

Lewis Hine was obviously going for a strong emotional response by calling the young man “human junk.” The photograph prompted such a response from our editor, John McClymer, and from scholars such as James Guimond, whom Manning cites. Knowing Hammett’s age when Hine met him adds to our understanding of why Hine called the young man “junk”; however, none of what happened to Roy Hammett after his encounter with Hine is directly relevant to interpreting the Hineograph.

 

To include later data in interpreting Hine’s images would conjure the specter of the post-modernist metanarrative requiring a presentist reading and negating the role of photographer as author. When Hine photographed Roy, he could have known none of what lay in store for the young man. His future, from Hine’s political perspective, probably looked pretty bleak. Including details of events that occurred after this time frame in our consideration of the image, details Hine could not have known, obscures the intellectual process, defeats the value of photographer as witness, and detracts from the power of the point Hine was making. Including the later facts of Hammett’s life, albeit interesting, encourages the viewer to disallow the historical intellectual context of the original document.

 

As we see from his exhibit panels, Hine sought “before” and “after” images to illustrate the benefits of social programs and the negatives of allowing states to regulate the enforcement of what laws existed. In a sense, Hine sought out the occasional “poster child” that would make a strong visual counter-point to the so-called “normal” child. For some reason, Hine thought that Roy Hammett fit the bill of a counter-point to his own idea of childhood normalcy; perhaps simply the visual incongruity of a grown man (his voice had no doubt deepened) smoking a cigarette and wearing children’s clothes affected Hine. Also, one is surprised at the revelation of Hammett’s age in 1912. He looks far younger than 19. One of the many complaints that the NCLC had was the lack of fresh air and normal exercise in a mill child’s life. In addition to poor nutrition, these factors might have made him less healthy looking than he would have been without the years in the mills. Hine was also an expert on the content of his images; having seen so many who were physically and educationally stunted, Hammett’s seemingly cavalier attitude to his own bleak future may have angered the 38 year-old photographer who had a male child of his own. Obviously, Hine had the “Making Human Junk” idea in his head in 1912, even though he did not compose the montage until 1914.

 

Since nothing jumps out about Hammett as visually “junk,” at 19 (contrast Roy Hammett with the adolescent girls from 1909 Macon, Georgia who did make it into the poster [although the caption is not Hine’s]: http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/childlabor/hine-adolescents.htm), wearing children’s clothes, smoking, idle, and speaking in a manner that indicated his lack of formal schooling, Hine (the schoolteacher) may have seen something in Hammett’s personality that the historian may not see in his face. Hammett never did escape the mills, and but for the shotgun accident, he may well have died early from his lung ailment or another occupational disease. Hine became more directly involved in the political rhetoric of the NCLC in 1914 and 1915 after he began using the title “exhibition director.” His was not the strongest rhetoric by far. Introducing his 23-photo essay in Hine’s “Unto The Least Of These” [Everybody’s (July, 1909): 75–88], Hine quoted noted journalist Charles Edward Russell and gives the modern reader an idea of what Hine’s superiors at the NCLC thought of the potential of his pictures (although Hine’s images are not nearly as straightforward as the extract leads one to believe):

Of child labor and its significance you that have heard vaguely may now observe infallibly. In the pictures that follow you can see it as it is, naked and hideous. The camera shall pluck you by the sleeve and show you the bad that is and indicate the worse that is to be. Here we murder bodies, minds, and souls. Here we take a life, with as much right to happiness as any other life has, endowed with as much capacity for light, joy, hope, and the grace of living; and we crush out of it the last chance of health, decency, comfort, knowledge, aspiration and growth. How we do it these pictures will show you. … You see how and where they work and live; and, looking upon these faces, you need not the comment of the photographer that among these children he found many illiterate. That too is to be read here with the other signs of foul play. Made ignorant, made brutal, made cogs in a machine to be worn out and thrown away like other cogs; and yet children like our own, with no less rights to the life thus denied them. (75)

Very much in the style of Russell, who famously said, “The best way to abolish the muckraker is to abolish the muck,” Hine’s rhetoric was usually more measured. But, Russell, as Hine did later with Hammett, compared the working child and the machinery he or she tends: “made ignorant, made brutal, made cogs … to be worn out and thrown away like other cogs.” Although Russell encouraged “the culprits … You and me” to look over Hine’s images: “This day has nothing for you more important than that you should examine well these witnesses against ourselves,” Hine’s captions on the 23 following images are mostly matter of fact. Hine’s jeremiad tone did not come out until later, until Roy Hammett, and he abandoned it after the Owen-Keating Child Labor Act of 1916.

 

Manning, by doing this research on Hine’s subjects, gives the historian more information to draw from in order to understand what happened to a single individual before and after his or her encounter with Hine. However, one would hope to learn more from the oral histories about the conditions of work, or in Roy Hammett’s family’s case, about whether his widow and children had to work in the mill once he died. Because Hine chose to document Hammett, he becomes interesting to the historian. This is also the power of historical photographs; because of their existence, they skew our study of history. Was Roy Hammett more or less important to our understanding of history than another mill worker? We do have a visual document that adds information to our research, but we care about Hammett because Hine cared about him. When we look at Roy Hammett, it should be through Hine’s lens. And through the uses to which the National Child Labor Committee put the image.