Cotton Mill Girl: Behind Lewis Hine’s Photograph & Child Labor Series | 100 Photos | TIME


In the early 1900’s, the general population in those years had very little understanding of what was meant by child labor and child exploitation. The kinds of jobs you would find children working in ranged from the mines, the factories, the cotton mills, to working out on the streets selling newspapers. Injuries, even deaths were very common among children. The parents would often say that they needed the income that their children brought in. That that was what allowed them to continue to survive. A number of parents were advocates for child labor, and their children thought that that was the way life was. One of the first things the National Child Labor Committee did was to hire a photographer. They hired Lewis Hine who was then their photographer for the next two decades. They sent him around the country to identify, find, and photograph children in exploitative situations. He promoted himself as a Bible salesman. He said he was bringing his camera along, so he could photograph kids reading Bibles. A boy would say he was thirteen when in fact he was eleven. Or a girl would say she was twelve, when in fact she might be nine. The photograph is of a young girl, ten or eleven years old. Her name was Sadie Pfeifer at a cotton mill in Lancaster, South Carolina. She’s standing in front of a large loom on a long hallway, staring at, and working hard on the job of selecting the quality products. She’s probably worked most of the night. It’s nearing the end of her shift. She stands there, iconic, as a representative of hundreds of other girls who are being treated just like her, and who have no choice. That photograph raised the consciousness. Immediately, you see that photograph, and you cannot look away from it. It doesn’t say America. Lewis Hine’s stark photographs influenced legislation over a period of roughly 35 years. This body of work on child labor represented how he thought and how he felt that children must not be exploited. He represents the most important photographer in terms of social advocacy and social change in the first half of the 20th century.

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