Lewis Hine and the social survey – #100GameChangers

Lewis Wicker Hine (1874-1940) considered one of the great masters of social photography. He used the camera to promote social reforms, particularly in the field of child labour. In 1907, he became the photographer of the National Child Labour Committee (NCLC). He documented child labour in American factories to support the NCLC’s efforts to abolish the practice.

A graduate in sociology, he has turned photography into a tool for study and denunciation. His debut behind the camera came with a study conducted with students from the Ethical Culture School on immigration at Ellis Island. It was the landing place for immigrants in New York. From 1907 onwards, Hine’s commitment intensified. He worked as a freelancer for The Survey, which is a magazine promoting social reforms. He brought the drama of child labour to the attention of the public, highlighting its crudest aspects. Through his work, he was also a lucid witness to the human contribution paid to the development of industrial society.

Photography cannot lie, but liars can photograph.

Lewis Hine

After the request of the International Red Cross, he travelled to Europe in 1918 to document the situation in the countries devastated by the First World War. Returning to New York in 1919, Hine again focused his interest on the world of work. But this time highlighting its significance as a place of dignity for human beings.

The sociological and humanistic awareness of Lewis Hine’s images is of great significance in a perspective that goes beyond the scope of photography itself. Hine’s photographs were accompanied by meticulous annotations, detailing relevant sociological data. Hine worked with a wooden camera, which produced 4″× 5″ and 5″× 7″ glass plates and film negatives from which he often made contact prints. He understood the interpretive value of photography and its powerful communicative power in bringing out criticism of the system.

In the early days of the Great Depression, Hine photographed the construction of the Empire State Building. He was able to enjoy impressive aerial shots, and from time to time moved beyond the building to get a wide view. Hine took a picture of a man over the Empire State Building. He filmed the worker, omitting the steel beams of the building. The worker was not in danger, but the title conveys both the precariousness depicted and the nature of finance capital during a crisis. Hine would collect many of these photographs in his book Men at Work.

As the social framework changed, Hine spent the last years of his life in poverty. He was rejected by the same entities that once admired his innovative work. His work, recognized as a tool of the most modern photojournalistic reporting medium, finds ample space in the halls of the International Museum of Photography and the archives of the Library of Congress.

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