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Lewis Hine: The Master of Documentary Photography

By Lewis Hine -, Public Domain, Link

Documenting the exploitation of child labourers and stirring America's conscience through the images of working children which helped change the nation's child labor laws, the American sociologist and photographer, Lewis Wickes Hine, is remembered for his documentation of exploited child workers and government projects in early 20th century.

One of the earliest photographers to use the photograph as a documentary tool, Hine was born on September 26, 1874, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Destined to have a unique outlook on life, Hine lost his father in an accident in 1892, and forced to help sustain his family financially.

Hine was educated as a sociologist at the University of Chicago and later continued his education at New York and Columbia Universities, before started teaching at the Ethical Culture School. Purchasing his first camera in 1903, Hine employed his photographs in his teaching and established what became known as documentary photography.

In 1905, Hine began to portray the immigrants who crowded onto New York's Ellis Island, and he also photographed the tenements and sweatshops where the immigrants were forced to live and work. In 1908, these pictures were published in “Charities and the Commons”. Hine hoped he could use these photographs to help bring about social reform.

In 1909, Hine published “Child Labor in the Carolinas” and “Day Laborers Before Their Time”, the first of his many photo stories documenting child labor. These photo stories included pictures as “Beaker Boys Inside the Coal Beaker” and “Little Spinner in Carolina Cotton Mill”, which showed children as young as eight years old working long hours in dangerous conditions.

Two years later, Hine was hired by National Child Labor Committee to explore child-labor conditions in the United States more extensively. He traveled throughout the eastern half of the United States, gathering appalling pictures of exploited children and the slums in which they lived. Hine kept a careful record of his conversations with the children by secretly taking notes inside his coat pocket and photographing birth entries in family Bibles. He measured the children’s heights by the buttons on his vest.

Hine worked for National Child Labor Committee for eight years. As the consequence of his effort, Congress eventually agreed to pass legislation to protect children in 1916. As a result of the Keating-Owen Act, restrictions were placed on the employment of children aged under 14 in factories and shops.

Late in World War I, Hine served as a photographer with the Red Cross. This involved him visiting Europe where he photographed the living conditions of French and Belgian civilians suffering from the impact of the war. After the Armistice, he went to Balkans and in 1919 he published the photo story “The Children's Burden  in the Balkans”.

After his return to New York City, Hine was hired to record the construction of the Empire State Building, then the tallest building in the world. To get the proper angle for certain pictures of the skyscraper, he had himself swung out over the city streets in a basket or bucket suspended from a crane or similar device. In 1932, these photographs were published as “Men at Work”. Thereafter, he documented a number of government projects.

Hine's last years were marked by professional struggles due to diminishing government and corporate patronage. He had great difficulty earning enough money from his photography. In January 1940, he lost his home after failing to keep up repayments to the Home Owners Loan Corporation. Eleven months later, Lewis Wickes Hines died in extreme poverty on November 3, 1940, Dobbs Ferry, New York.



1 comment

  • thank you this very helpful


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