How a photojournalist helped put a stop to child labor in the United States

Oct 19, 2015

Lewis Hine (1874 – 1940), a sociologist and photographer, is credited as being among the first and most effective photojournalists. His primary subject was child labor, which was commonplace in the early 1900s. 




















“I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected,” Hine said.

His photographs were fuel for the labor leaders and suffragists battling to bring about social reforms to protect children. His pictures put a face to the poorest and most vulnerable segments of American society. The children were largely drawn from the surging population of newly arrived immigrants coming through Ellis Island in New York, who had no choice but to put their children to work.


In the coal mines, textile mills, cigar factories, canneries and meatpacking houses, accident rates were high. The work was dangerous and the children were often exposed to abuse. Factory owners, obviously, did not want to part with their cheap source of labor, and they pushed back against Hine. Everyone knew that child labor was widespread, but most people didn’t want to think about it or acknowledge it. Hine, in shining a light on the practice, also put a spotlight on himself and what he was trying to accomplish.



Eventually, Hine was banned from factories. He was followed by private eyes. Threats were made against his life by factory police and foremen. Rather than give up, Hine started visiting workplaces in disguise — as a fire inspector, a bible salesman, a postcard vendor. In the end, his photographs were instrumental in changing child labor laws in the United States. If you liked this blog, you may also enjoy: Pictures with Purpose: Environmentalism and Activism Meet Photography

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All photos courtesy of the Library of Congress