nonfiction nuggets…a photographer tackles injustice

Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor, by Russell Freedman, with photographs by Lewis Hine 

In the early 1900s, over 2 million children under 16 years of age were hard at work in the United States, peeling shrimp, mining coal, spinning cotton, shucking oysters, harvesting crops as migrant workers, twelve or more hours a day, six days a week.  They suffered respiratory diseases from cotton lint and coal dust, mangled limbs from dangerous machinery, eye strain, muscle strain, horrible burns from  molten glass, at 3,133 degrees Fahrenheit.   Beyond these miseries, they were deprived of education including basic literacy, and the liberty of childhood. 

Lewis Hine was a photographer in this era with a mission:  to expose the abuses and injustices of child labor and promote new laws to end it.  To accomplish this, he risked attack from powerful factory managers time and time again in order to document the hidden tragedies of these children.  He crawled into dark coal mines, waded through piles of shellfish, where “children with swollen, bleeding fingers were a common sight” due to the acid in the shrimp, and surreptitiously measured children using his own vest buttons as a makeshift height chart.  His photographs are a stunning black-and-white array of pitiful scenes and work-worn faces.  

“Hine wasn’t concerned with children who worked at odd jobs after school or did chores around the house or the family farm.  He didn’t object to youngsters working as trainees and apprentices, learning skills they would use for the rest of their lives.  The campaign against child labor was not directed against them.  It was aimed at the exploitation of boys and girls as cheap labor.” 

Russell Freedman tells the fascinating story of Lewis Hine, from his birth in 1874 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin and poverty-filled childhood, through his experiences working for the National Child Labor Committee as an investigative photographer, and on to the beautiful portraits of the dignified adult workforce he did in the 1920s. Hine died in poverty, as his work went out of fashion, never to know what a masterful status he would have today in the world of American photography. This book has many, many full-page reproductions of Hine’s photographs, and a text which a 4th grader could understand, yet adults will enjoy and learn from. Highly recommended.