Lewis Hine

As part of his activist series on child labour, Hine photographed children who had fallen victim to the machinery they had been operating. This work obviously fits in with his broader campaign at the time which was to put an end to exploitation of children by factory owners. The children had been mutilated by the machines, having fingers or limbs ripped out or crushed as a result of lapse in concentration or more commonly falling asleep due to overwork.

His photographs of crippled newsboys were similarly aimed at evoking pity or eliciting a response from the authorities. The message is clear: these poor children should not be forced to work by the evil bourgeois foreman or boss! The fact that these particular children are disabled merely adds to the horror of their being exploited:

Hine did not restrict his activism to children. He also made a series of images showing dorsal curvatures as a result of occupational posture, and there are his images of disabled adults (though Neil Gallagher, in the third picture, became disabled by machinery as a child):

These images are predicated on the concept of the hapless worker falling victim to and being ground under the unsympathetic wheel of the industrialist-capitalist machine, and are not out of place among his child labour images. The overall message is the same: that labour is remorseless and needs to be reformed for the benefit of the worker. On the other hand, it has also been suggested that images showing the plight of crippled or maimed workers served merely to further stigmatise impairment and disabled people (Garland-Thomson 2001a). Thus, although Hine’s motivation can be understood as virtuous and humane, his moral credentials “well nigh unimpeachable” (Badger 1988), the photographic work he produced to illustrate the need for social reform is a double-edged sword. For example, the image below was entitled One Arm and Four Children:


Hine also took some photographs in a mental institution in New Jersey in 1924, a series entitled ‘Institutionalized People’, the first of which I came across in Barthes’ Camera Lucida, about which he famously wrote “…in the photograph of two retarded children at an institution in New Jersey (taken in 1924 by Lewis H. Hine [sic]), [I] hardly see the monstrous heads and pathetic profiles (which belong to the studium); what I see … is the off-center detail, the little boy’s huge Danton collar, the girl’s finger bandage; I am a primitive, a child – or a maniac; I dismiss all knowledge, all culture, I refuse to inherit anything from another eye than my own.” (1993, p 51)

The subjects are variously referred to in the photographs’ titles as ‘morons’, ‘cretus’, and ‘deformed children’

From Popular Science Monthly January 1916, some of the subjects appear to be the same as those in Hine’s images, although his are supposed to have been taken 8 years later! (Indeed, the hydrocephalic girl has the bandage on the same finger of her left hand). Which begs the question – where did Barthes get hold of his image? Since the same subjects appear in different images, we can assume that the series came from a single photo session. According to the George Eastman House archive online, Hine’s pictures were taken at the institution anywhere between 1905 and 1940! That aside, the language of the article is very much of its era – ‘should these children have been born?’ ‘Cretin’, ‘Mongolian idiot’, ‘a burden to himself and to the institution in which he is confined’, ‘society has no use’… the case for euthanasia or abortion or eugenics has been made! In contemporary society, language may have been mollified, extreme opinions deemed inhumane, but in fact the underlying views remain much the same as they did a century ago.

According to a detailed biography, Hine worked on commission for the Milbank Foundation between 1920 and 1929. Although this does not solve the issue of the dates of the photos from the mental institution, I assume that it was for this health organisation that he took extensive pictures of medical services and practices, including these lesser known images of disabled children:

Since Hine is principally celebrated for the photographs he made before and after these images were produced (National Child Labor Commission and Men at Work respectively), they seem to have been largely ignored and I have not been able to find much information about their production or purpose. Although the images vary in subject matter from documents of rehabilitation and intervention and training carers to more positive images of ‘bravely smiling through’ or ‘getting on with it’, the images are not as connected with the subjects as his child labour images were. There is not the same intimacy or trust, more of a cold distance, and many of the images have an inauthentic posed or orchestrated feel to them. Perhaps this has more to do with the fact that it was a commissioned work rather than something that Hine felt strongly about from a personal perspective.

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