The Life Changing Photography of Lewis Hine

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This article was originally featured in tmrw magazine #18.

“A picture is worth a thousand words”. Ever since the first photograph was taken and printed in 1826 this much repeated adage has been confirmed, with the art of photography being used to tell a thousand different stories every single day. Photojournalism has been the catalyst for change with many photographers using their camera as a weapon in the struggle for social reform. 

Possibly the greatest proponent for change was the American photographer Lewis Hine. Born in 1874 in Wisconsin, Hine didn’t start off as a photographer. After his graduation from the University of Chicago in 1901 he taught botany and nature studies at the Ethical Culture School in New York City. It was there, after his mentor Frank Manney suggested he use photography as a tool for his classes, that Lewis Hine as a photographer was born.

Accompanied by Manney, Hine’s set out on his first project: to highlight the social conditions faced by the immigrants that recently moved to Ellis Island. He was urged by his partner to portray the newcomers with a sense of dignity and self-worth, as an attempt to combat the recently increasing anti-immigrant sentiments voiced by the Ellis Island natives. Think of it as a pre-internet Humans Of New York. This ability to highlight the beauty amongst the melancholy grew to be a major feature of Hine’s work and it became his strongest tool when trying to change the opinion of the masses in later life.

These early works highlighted a burgeoning talent, and one Hine’s was eager to follow, choosing to quit teaching and devote his life to his new found craft. He soon received his first job as an investigative photojournalist with the National Child Labor Committee. It was in this role where he could continue shining a light on those that needed it, but this new role wasn’t without its challenges. Tasked with photographing children in coal mines in Pennsylvania and cotton mills in South Carolina, he often posed as a Bible salesman or a life insurance agent to gain entry, then slipped away before he could be discovered and beaten up. His years of being a teacher coupled with his gentle demeanour allowed children to feel at ease with him and so he was able to gain valuable information about their working hours and the environment they lived in which he passed on to his employers. This information paired with his photos made visible the long-ignored plight of the working children. His work played an important role in the movement to enact federal and state child labour laws which culminated in the Fair Labour Standards Act, which included strong protections for children.

Although his work would go on to have an everlasting effect on the children of America, after leaving the NCLC, the 1930s were tough for Hine. His brand of photographing sociological concern had fallen out of fashion. The onset of the Depression only reduced the chance for him to find decent work. Luckily he had friends in high places and when the publicist for the Empire State Building called. This new project saw Hine’s take what would become his most well-known photograph as he literally scaled to new heights. Hoisted 100 stories in the air in an open steel box rigged to a wire he was able to join the workers amongst the clouds, managing to capture images that no one had seen before. He sought to interpret adult labour as a source of dignity and pride and to emphasize that humans, rather than machines, were the true producers and he went to extremes to do this.

His work capturing the “sky-boys” would be his final hurrah. In Hine's last couple of years with his financial difficulties beginning to mount he lost his home, had to apply for welfare and ultimately his love for the craft. Unfortunately he died as destitute as anyone who ever sat for his lens. After his death his Empire State photos would go on to fetch tens of thousands of dollars and his work highlighting the struggle faced by children would become invaluable. Although he was not a rich in any monetary sense, he had a wealth of talent and drive to do what’s right and the legacies he’s left behind is worth a whole lot more.

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Daniel Eggleston