Trained as a sociologist, destined to be a leading social reformer during the early 20th century, Lewis Hine (1874–1940) made his mark as a documentary photographer of the poor, exploited and downtrodden. There is no better person to honor on this Labor Day.
He exposed the appalling inequity, disparity and humiliation that befell Americans and immigrants through vivid photographs. Hine revealed the impact of poverty and squalor in tenements and the backbreaking labor practices endured in mills, mines and sweatshops. His photos were a shocking revelation to the public at large, prompting reformers to radically alter the living and working conditions of the urban and rural poor. Perhaps most significant for the nation, the visual evidence shed light on the negative impact that such exploitative labor practices had on child welfare. His photographs for the National Child Labor Committee helped mobilize American legislators against child labor, while providing an extensive cautionary monument for future generations .
Hine was an indefatigable advocate for the those in the lowest castes. The Lewis Hine Collection at the Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) includes over 5,000 photographs from 32 states. Over 4,500 of them are digitized and available online.
Most of you reading this on Labor Day have doubtless seen Hine's most famous photographs of laborers. You may even own the USPS commemorative stamps issued in his honor. But it is an apt moment to recall these pictures of children at hard labor. They never cease to break the heart as they touch the soul.