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  • Sadie Pfeifer was 9 years old when this photo was taken.

  • Operating heavy machinery that's nearly twice her height in a cotton mill in Lancaster, South Carolina, in 1908.

  • She was just one of many children working in mills, fields, factories, and mines.

  • And although these kids were spread across the United States, working in separate industries, they all had one thing in common.

  • They all met Lewis Hine.

  • At the turn of the 20th century, the United States knew it had a child labor problem.

  • The 1900 federal census revealed that 1.75 million children under the age of 16, more than one in five, were working at this time.

  • The Industrial Revolution had mechanized American and European manufacturing, and a cheap labor force was needed to complete repetitive tasks for hours on end.

  • Children from poor families were targeted for these jobs because they would work for next to nothing and were less likely to strike than adults 

  • State legislatures and the American public knew this was happening on a mass scale, but didn't act.

  • Until they saw what it actually looked like.

  • Starting in 1908, the newly formed National Child Labor Committee hired a photographer to investigate and report on the industries employing children.

  • That photographer was Lewis Wickes Hine: educator, sociologist, and member of the Progressive Movement.

  • A period in the United States that saw a wave of political activism and social reform.

  • Hine emphasized the potential power of photography as a tool for social reform in a speech he gave in 1909 called "Social photography: how the camera may help."

  • He said, The dictum, then, of the social worker is "Let there be light;" and in this campaign for light we have for our advance agent the light-writerthe photograph.

  • He traveled extensively, gathering information, interviews, and images of working children across the country.

  • He visited coal mines in Pennsylvania.

  • Where adolescent "breaker boys" worked underground for hours, separating impurities from coal.

  • Sardine cutters in Maine.

  • Oyster shuckers in Louisiana, some as young as 4 years old.

  • Tobacco pickers in Kentucky.

  • Cranberry pickers in Massachusetts.

  • Beet farms in Colorado.

  • And young messengers and newsboys in cities all over the country.

  • Many of the photos captured adults nearby, supervising the children as they worked.

  • When Hine wasn't allowed access to the mills and factories, he waited outside and documented the comings and goings of its workers, whose shifts often lasted late into the night.

  • Laborers would pose for portraits and tell Hine a bit about themselves, their wages, and their work conditions.

  • Sometimes they showed their horrific injuries and described what happened.

  • Like this boy from Bessemer City, North Carolina, whose hand got crushed in the gears of a cotton spinner.

  • We know that because each photo, numbering over 5,000, includes a detailed caption written by Hine.

  • Hine coined the term "photo stories" to describe this marriage of images and text.

  • And it's a big part of how the photos humanized the lives of child laborers to an indifferent public.

  • But it's also his photographic technique that makes them feel so personal.

  • Let's use the photos of cotton mill workers like Sadie as an example.

  • First, many of these photos are framed the exact same way, just substituting a different worker.

  • Hine was trying to show that each child's experience was part of a widespread problem, and the repetition in the images signals that.

  • You can really see how intentional the framing is when you look at how the image of Sadie appeared when it was first published in a Progressive magazine, in 1909.

  • It's opposite a nearly identical photo of a different worker, set so that the symmetry of the two images makes the machinery seem to go on and on.

  • The left-hand caption says, "Spinner. A type of many in the mill."

  • Hine's photographs are also shot with a very shallow depth of field, which basically means a narrow part of the photo is in focus, and the rest is blurred out.

  • A photo with a deep depth of field would look like this one by Jacob Riis, who was photographing New York City slums around the same time.

  • Notice how the playground in the background is in focus, just like the kids in the foreground.

  • Now look at Hine's portraits.

  • In this one, the factory this boy works at looms behind him, but it's almost totally blurred out.

  • This was a recurring visual themeto include the machinery or the workplace in the frame, but obscure it, favoring the worker instead.

  • This narrow point of focus, combined with shooting from a lower angle.

  • The eye level of these children is why these images are so effective at humanizing their subjects.

  • Photos like the ones from the South Carolina cotton mills changed the public perception of child labor in the United States,

  • Ultimately pressuring state legislatures to introduce laws regulating work for those under the age of 18 and sending kids back to school.

  • Lewis Hine went on to photograph the construction of the Empire State Building in New York City, using the same dignifying techniques he photographed child laborers with.

  • Considering the perspective of his subjects with a narrow focus, emphasizing the worker, not the machinery.

  • Hine was one of the first to use a camera as a tool for social documentary, to shine a light on the mostly unseen.

  • He understood early on the power images have to tell stories.

  • As he said in that 1909 speech: Take the photograph of a tiny spinner in a Carolina cotton mill.

  • With a picture thus, sympathetically interpreted, what a lever we have for the social uplift.

  • Hey everyone, that was Darkroom season 1!

  • I'm going to take a break from it and work on some other stuff, like History Club with Phil.

  • If there are photos you think would make good stories for the next season, make sure to leave a comment below.

  • In the meantime, if you're looking for more great videos on photography in history, check out the documentary "The Man Who Shot Tutankhamun", available on CuriosityStream.

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  • Curiosity Stream doesn't impact our editorial, but their support makes videos like this one possible.

  • So go check them out!

Sadie Pfeifer was 9 years old when this photo was taken.

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B1 US Vox child labor cotton photo worker mill

These photos ended child labor in the US

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    Vivian Chen posted on 2019/07/27
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