Working as an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), Lewis Hine (1874-1940) portrayed working and living conditions of children in the United States between 1908 and 1924. The Library of Congress' National Child Labor Committee Collection includes more than 5,100 photographs that came with the records of the organization. Many of the pictures are familiar, but others are relatively unexplored.
Do some of the pictures seem heavy-handed? This was definitely photography with a purpose: to support the NCLC's efforts to promote the "rights, awareness, dignity, well-being and education of children and youth as they relate to work and working." Hine traveled to many parts of the United States, documenting children at work in factories, fields, and doing piece work at home. He also used the photographs to portray the consequences of child labor, including its impact on the health, safety, and education of the next generation. In some cases, the photographs suggest solutions, including organized and healthful activities for the nation's youth.
The conditions Hine operated under were far from ideal. He referred to his work as "detective work," and his captions often provide details of the names, ages, hours, and wages of the people he photographed, as well as the name of a "witness" who accompanied him. Supervisors and workers frequently regarded him with suspicion. Hurried work under these conditions may explain why some information Hine recorded has proven inaccurate.
It's evident in many of the photographs that the workers were highly conscious of the camera. Nevertheless, Hine sometimes caught unguarded moments and playful interaction, as well as many memorable faces. Hine also used photographs to show what wasn't there—for example, an almost-empty school at harvest time. And sometimes, whatever the photographer intended, the people in the photograph simply saw the occasion as an opportunity for a family portrait.
Did people see the photos at the time? The NCLC made a concerted effort to show the pictures to the public, including them in its own publications and placing them in newspapers and progressive publications. The photos also appeared in stereopticon slide shows and in displays that the NCLC circulated.
To view the complete series and read more, make sure to check out The Library of Congress Flickr.