Saturday, 1 September 2012

Picturing Child Abuse

Back at the turn of the 20th Century, “child abuse” meant putting minors on long and dangerous, six-day-a-week work shifts.

One idealist named Lewis Hine (1874-1940), the so-called “reformer with a camera,” vowed to take photos of children at work with such accuracy and poignancy that laws would be passed protecting them from such exploitation.

A compelling collection of those photos (which he took for the National Child Labor Committee between 1904 and 1938) is on display, courtesy of the regional branch of the National Archives, in the Robert N.C. Nix, Sr. Building at Ninth and Chestnut.

Like W. Eugene Smith (whose CBS-TV Sunday Morning bio included the dismal news that he died with $18 to his name), Hine was no great fiscal shakes—he died destitute and forgotten. But his visual legacy—5x7 view-stand images bestowed on the Library of Congress in 1954 to celebrate the NCLC’s golden jubilee—will be known as long as Americans have a conscience about how they use and abuse each other.

Hine was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, didn’t get his first camera until he was 29 and taught his first course in photography at Manhattan’s Ethical Culture School. He took his students to meet the legendary Alfred Stieglitz, but his bias was towards sociology, not art. Gene Smith would echo his commitments with his aphorism, “Let Truth Be My Prejudice.”

“I wanted to show,” Hine announced, “the things that had to be corrected.” For ten years (1907-18) he was on the NCLC staff, criss-crossing the country to document child work abuse. In the 1920s he created another suite of images. Men at Work. He often snuck into workplaces and frequently manipulated his subjects, so the message wouldn’t be missed.

Hine is one of those benign American obsessives that we forget at the peril of diminishing our heritage.

From  Welcomat, July 1986

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