Lewis Hine, the « Investigrapher »

Lewis Hine is often remembered as a social photographer who fought for more justice in the early 20th century. Among his best known pictures, remain his portrayals of child labor. Yet, few know that in order to take those pictures, Hine used to spend a lot of time collecting a great deal of information and data as to his subjects and their living conditions. Half photographer, half investigator, how did Hine manage to enter the very heart of America’s misery ?

A society in crisis and the question of child labor

Between 1890 and World War I, the United-States was going through a period of profound socio-economic changes. Besides the development of new technologies, the growing industrialization and the mushrooming of cities, the country had to face major issues. Fighting against corruption and protecting the rights of consumers, workers, immigrants and the poor were among the government’s top priorities.

In 1906, Hine is hired by the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), the first statewide anti-child labor organization created, to document the realities and consequences of child labor in the United-States. By the early 19th century already, many Americans denounced child labor that they called “child slavery” and in 1813, the nation’s first child labor law was passed.  However, despite the growing criticism, laws and studies alarming on child labor, the number of child workers increased throughout the 19th century.

For twelve years, under the NCLC, Lewis Hine traveled thousands of miles across the whole country and took more than 5000 pictures for the organization. He took photographs of street trades in New York, Delaware and Texas, in cotton mills in New England and the Carolinas, in coal mines in Pennsylvania or in glass factories in Virginia.

« Girls in Factory' »,1908

Tricks and lies

Nevertheless, it was not an easy task since factories’ owners often refused access to Hine to take his pictures. Consequently, the photographer had to develop cunning and even lied on his identity to trick the factories’ managers. Just like an investigator on a mission, Hine had to be discreet and pretended to be a Bible salesman, an insurance agent or a fire inspector to enter the establishments. Once inside, Hine pretended to take photographs of the machines, not the children. In a letter to Paul Kellogg in 1937, Hine declared himself

“In the early days of my Child Labor activities I was an investigator with a camera attachment”.

‘Child Labour: Girls in Factory’ 1908Moreover, whenever possible, Hine avoided using his flash (potentially dangerous and quite long to prepare) and preferred using natural light by placing the child by a window. To a certain extent thus, Hine’s “missions” under the NCLC influenced the aesthetics of his pictures which are today recognized for their artistic qualities.

« Spinners and doffers in Lancaster Cotton Mills », 1908

Additionally, Hine used to keep track of his field observations  in a notebook with the children’s names, their age, weight, state of health and possible work accidents. It could also include notes from the conversations Hine had had with parents or employers, who sometimes denied the fact that the children were too young to work. Almost like an ethnologist, Lewis Hine could spend several weeks with the children he was going to take picture of and observe every moment of their daily lives.

At the heart of misery

Lewis Hine’s investigation on child labor along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts was particularly harsh. The photographer wrote

“I have witnessed many varieties of child labor […] but the climax, the logical “laissez faire” policy regarding the exploitation of children is to be see, among the oyster-shuckers and shrimp-pickers of that locality”.

Lewis Hine, NCLC poster – 1913


Indeed, with horror, Hine discovered that children from 3 to 11 years old could work from 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning to 4:00 in the afternoon, for usually no more than five cents a day. They split open the sharp, tough oyster shells, which caused their fingers to bleed.

Once his pictures were developed then, Lewis Hine would mix his photographs with typed reports, captions and personal commentaries to create  “photographic investigations”. For the NCLC thus, Hine’s emotionally charged descriptions were real propaganda to inform and make the American people react on the issue. It is not until 1938 that child labor ended nationwide with the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Fake identities to trick the employers, personal field observations, interviews and typed reports, Lewis Hine was totally involved in his work for the NCLC. He was above all profoundly touched by child labor and its consequences. With Hine’s personal commitment in mind, his pictures appear even more powerful.

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